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UK Special Forces Operations: Syria

Britain’s Special Forces have been deployed operationally in at least 19 countries in the past decade, new analysis reveals, raising questions over the degree of transparency and democratic consent these shadowy units operate under. This section outlines the extent of UKSF’s operations in Syria.

The Syrian civil war developed out of the country’s Arab Spring protests in March 2011, with fighting becoming widespread by July. According to his memoir (For the Record, p279), David Cameron was pushing other countries to deploy their special forces in Syria as early as January 2012. By August, it was reported from multiple sources that teams from SAS and SBS were ‘understood to be based in the neighbouring state of Jordan, slipping into Syria on missions’’.

According to European and Jordanian sources in 2013, training of rebels had been going on for a year and was focused on senior Syrian army officers. Unconfirmed reports in French and American media suggested that UKSF had been assisting Syrian rebels in Turkey and Lebanon as early as 2011. The former British ambassador Peter Ford would later tell a parliamentary enquiry that “moderate” groups among the armed opposition was “largely a figment of the imagination”.

In August 2013, MPs rejected a proposal for military action in Syria after reports of chemical weapon attacks by the Assad regime. David Cameron became the first prime minister to lose a parliamentary vote on military action since Lord North in 1782 when parliament voted to stop fighting in the American War of Independence.

However, three days before this vote, UKSF and MI6 were on the ground actively hunting for Syrian missiles that might be used against RAF jets. And despite the airstrikes never taking place, in October 2014, Special Forces were reported to be calling in US airstrikes to defend the town of Kobane.

By December 2015, parliament had approved airstrikes “explicitly” against ISIS commanders but not for deploying British troops on the ground. Despite this, there are multiple reports of UKSF fighting on the Syrian frontline in al-Tanf, Raqqa or near the Turkey/Syria border – sometimes even wearing US uniforms to maintain secrecy. They were even photographed in August 2016.

In 2018, a rare SAS fatality was reported. Matt Tonroe, was killed alongside a US commando in a friendly fire incident. The Americans originally blamed the deaths on a roadside bomb. A year later two SAS members were hospitalised after being hit by a missile in eastern Syria. Troops would repeatedly strike in northern Syria and Iraq, alongside Kurdish forces, as part of a flurry of killings of 100 IS fighters in April – June 2020.

2012

February: British Special Forces are to be sent to Syria following Marie Colvin’s death. Up to five squads will protect UK journalists and officials, including staff at our embassy in Damascus. (People, Feb 26)

August: Teams from SAS and SBS are ‘understood to be based in the neighbouring state of Jordan, slipping into Syria on missions’’ (Daily Mail) . Official purpose of FCO officials being there is for the provision of training and equipment to opposition forces. According to European and Jordanian sources in 2013 (Guardian), training of rebels had been going on for a year and is focused on senior Syrian army officers. Forces included Brits, US and French. Another source (American Conservative) says UK and French SF are on the ground delivering training to rebels. (NB: British intelligence were also supplying intelligence to rebels from Cyprus).

Peter Ford, the former British ambassador to Syria, told a parliamentary enquiry in 2016 that the existence of “moderate” groups among the armed opposition was “largely a figment of the imagination”. (MEE)

2013

August, 27 (This was three days before the parliamentary vote on Syria action)The British hunt for missiles and chemical weapons – which includes the SAS, Special Boat Service, Special Reconnaissance Regiment and MI6 spies – is one of the most hazardous in modern times as they are up against Assad’s forces as well as some rebel elements. Special forces troops will use laser and satellite technology to pinpoint the exact location of the key sites so they can be hit in a way that minimises the risk to civilians. It comes after the Assad regime’s chemical weapons attack last week, which killed up to 1,300 civilians, including children. (Mirror)

2014

October: British Special Forces have been defending the besieged Syrian town of Kobane. Special Air Service (SAS) Forward Air Controllers (FAC) have been calling in U.S air strikes. (Star)

2015

UK Parliament approved air strikes against IS on December 3 but vowed that troops would not be deployed on the ground.

SAS in Syria: They are deployed as snipers, calling in air-strikes, pursuing “high value targets” who are identified as ISIS commanders, directing mortar strikes and close-up fighting with the SDF. (Daily Record)

May: SAS soldiers reportedly carried out vital surveillance on leading IS figure, Abu Sayyaf, for the US-led mission before their allies attacked and killed him. The crack SAS troops joined US Forces on the mission in May this year. To keep their participation a secret, they wore US uniforms and carried American weapons. (Mail)

July: An additional 20 SAS soldiers flew into Saudi Arabia to prepare a training system in which the UK will instruct hundreds of members of the Syrian Moderate Opposition. (Express)

Troops were also reported to have ‘frequently crossed into Syria from their base in Jordan to assist the New Syrian Army’ in the southeastern Syrian village of al-Tanf, f. It was reported that British special forces had provided training, weapons and other equipment to the New Syrian Army since 2015. (Times)

Sniper killed three ISIS insurgents who were beheading Shia’s. Near Turkey/Syria border, “where an elite SAS unit had been conducting covert patrols.” (Express)

PM Cameron had given “carte blanche” for the SAS and SBS to kill and capture ISIS leaders, in Syria, Iraq and N.Africa as part of the Government’s “broad spectrum” response to the murder of 30 British tourists in Tunisia. (Times)

August: UK Special Forces are mounting hit and run raids against Islamic State deep inside eastern Syria dressed as insurgent fighters. More than 120 members belonging to the elite regiment are currently in the war-torn country on operation Shader, tasked with destroying IS equipment and munitions which insurgents constantly move to avoid Coalition air strikes.They are being supported by more than 250 specialists, who provide additional communications support. (Express)

December, W/C 28: Eight-man SAS unit posed as the wives of ISIS chiefs by covering themselves from head-to-toe in burkas, managing to blag their way through to the group’s headquarters in Raqqa. They were driven through the town in a Toyota pick-up truck – the make favoured by jihadi murderers – with the help of local Syrians working with the secret service to help bring down ISIS. Called in a US Reaper airstrike and then fired on escaping militants. (Express)

2016

June: Reports claimed that UKSF were fighting on the Syrian frontline from al-Tanf, near the Iraq/Jordan border. A commander of the New Syrian Army (NSA) later confirmed that UKSF British troops crossed from Jordan ‘to help with reconstructing defences in the village of al-Tanf after a wave of IS assaults’. (Middle East Eye)

July: SAS sniper kills ISIS leader. The two teams of four armed with long range sniper rifles, machine guns and rocket launchers sneaked into a terrorist-controlled enclave of northern Syria. (Star)

August: BBC released report claiming to have photographic evidence of UKSF on the ground in Syria, working in a ‘defensive role’. They were protecting the Syrian army’s base from IS attacks. Report details that the UK forces were heavily armed. (BBCOfficial government line (Sep 2016) is that it’s 86 military personnel to assist the US-led training of Syrian opposition forces regarded as moderates.

2018

March: SAS soldier, Matt Tonroe, was killed alongside a US commando in friendly fire incident was originally blamed on roadside bomb) – part of the fight against IS. Manbij, northern Syria. (Times)

Chris Ryan revealed in his History of SAS book that they had carried out an ‘aggressive mobile campaign’ (Ryan, History of the SAS pp.335-336).

December: SAS Bushmasters, along with US M-ATVs, spotted in Hajin, in the Deir Ezzor province, eastern Syria. (Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis)

2019

January: Two SAS were hospitalised, one “very seriously” injured, the other “non life-threatening” after being hit by a missile – at a base in the town of Deir al-Zour, eastern Syria. (Daily RecordBBC)

2020

April-July: SAS working alongside Kurdish forces killed 100 IS fighters in a number of a battles in Northern Syria and Iraq. Those IS killed included British nationals. DNA was used to prove the identity of the jihadists killed. The renewed assault began on April 10 when UK ground troops, accompanied by British-trained Kurdish soldiers, forced fanatics to take refuge in a building before an SAS radio operator called in two Typhoons based at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus, and a drone flown by controllers at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire. (Mail)

July120 from SF Support Group are reported to be starting a tech-based mission to track ISIS commanders. UNCLEAR ON PHYSICAL LOCATION OF OPERATORS (Star)

British special forces operating in Syria are believed to be resupplied by air from Cyprus, where RAF transport planes can be seen online taking off before their trackers disappear over Syria. (Declassified)

2021

January: A SAS marksman – working as part of a group of SAS collaborating with Kurdish fighters to find an ISIS unit  (a “kill or capture mission”) – killed a suicide bomber and four others

September: Collectively, all three contingents of the Special Forces are believed to have 150 of the Gepard GM6 Lynx rifle, which has been deployed to Syria and Iraq. There is no further information on where and when this deployment took place (Daily Mail)

October: Four members of the SBS were on an operation in Syria when the SBS deployed a new underwater gun and killed two ISIS fighters guarding an oil refinery. There is no information on the original purpose of the SBS’ deployment to Syria (Daily Mail).