Why the silence on British special forces?

As far as the British public knows, British special forces are not fighting in Syria, Libya, Iraq or Yemen

Chris Doyle

Published: Updated:

As far as the British public knows, British special forces are not fighting in Syria, Libya, Iraq or Yemen. No ground troops are involved, they are told. Not so, according to reports that have now exposed special forces fighting in all these countries. The Times newspaper reported on June 6 that British special forces have frequently crossed from Jordan into Syria to assist the New Syria Army to rebuild a camp at Tanf.

In Libya, special forces destroyed two suicide vehicles in Misrata. In March, Jordan’s King Abdallah briefed the US Congress that British special forces had been operating in Libya since the start of the year. Vice News reported in April on covert British anti-terror operations in Yemen. This is only what the media have flushed out - who knows how extensive such operations are and have been?

On Dec. 2, 2015, British Prime Minister David Cameron sought parliamentary approval to extend combat operations against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) into Syria as well as Iraq.

In doing so, he made clear that “the government won’t deploy UK troops in ground combat operations.” He said: “The argument was made to us by the Iraqi government that the presence of Western ground troops can be a radicalizing force and can be counterproductive, and that’s our view.”

When to use force is one of the prickliest issues confronting political leaders. Nowhere has this been more the case than in Britain, not least since the infamous decision to back the ill-judged war on Iraq in 2003. The ghosts of that decision hang over British politics. One of Cameron’s most painful political defeats was the parliamentary vote in 2013 on using force in Syria following the use of chemical weapons.

The deployment of special forces is hardly a shock. French special forces are also reportedly operating in Libya. The United States at least admits it is using such forces, and President Barack Obama announced an additional deployment of 250 US special forces to Syria in April, a six-fold increase. Some of these arrived in Syria only this week.

It is time to be more honest and ditch the blanket “no comment” farce. Special forces are used, they have a role, and it is pointless to deny it, but they should not be above the law

Chris Doyle


Special forces are a vital component in taking down groups such as ISIS. This is no doubt why Cameron pledged an extra £2 billion ($2.89 billion) for special forces. Their specialized talents have been used in many conflict theaters against Al-Qaeda and ISIS. However, many are concerned that special forces are now being used to do conventional military tasks because politically, the use of standard military forces is too sensitive.

Their use is seen by critics as a bypass around the need for parliamentary approval. The long-standing British convention is that the government never comments on the use of special forces. This is very convenient if you do not like parliamentary scrutiny about the purpose and goals of such operations, their effectiveness, frequency, scale or legality.

Human rights groups can be swatted away on this basis too. On what grounds can special forces kill in other countries, not least where they have not been invited, as is the case in Syria and Libya?

It has the hallmarks of other tricks and euphemisms to sidestep legal obligations - the use of drones to carry out what are effectively assassinations; the use of the term “enemy or unlawful combatant” rather than “prisoner of war” to avoid Geneva Convention obligations, or “enhanced or coercive interrogation” instead of “torture.”

Last July, British pilots participated in military operations in Syria without parliamentary approval. The escape clause was that the pilots were embedded with US forces.

Another view is that if the government is willing to deploy special forces, why not commit conventional ground troops, which the United States, Britain and France all admit are needed given the lack of a viable anti-ISIS force on the ground in Syria? There were the exaggerated claims made in December of up to 70,000 Syrian opposition forces who could take on ISIS - nothing close to these numbers have engaged the group in the field.

The answer is that they know it is too risky, and prefer using special forces where there is no debate on the end goal and whether it is achievable. Special forces can be used without ministers having to answer awkward questions in public. Full-scale Western troop deployments are deemed too risky, perhaps wisely.

It is time to be more honest and ditch the blanket “no comment” farce. Special forces are used, they have a role, and it is pointless to deny it, but they should not be above the law. Politicians have enough of a trust deficit as it is.

Operational matters need not be discussed, but the strategic goals should be, not least when there still appears to be no strategy, just the broad goal of wiping out ISIS. Is it not time for the British authorities to show more transparency and open this issue for proper debate? It should not be mission creep in the shadows in a secret war with no end.
Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio, having given over 148 interviews on the Arab world in in 2012 alone. He gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles and letters published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Most recently he took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in April, November, December 2013 and January 2014 including with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. He tweets @Doylech.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.