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SAS members detained over alleged war crimes in Syria comes amid wider scrutiny of Britain’s ‘elite’ forces

Questions about the conduct of the UK’s Special Forces keep on being raised

Five members of the United Kingdom’s Special Air Service (SAS) have been detained by British military police amid allegations of war crimes committed during operations in Syria, according to defence sources.

The UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) has refrained from commenting directly on the ongoing investigation but confirmed that any allegations of misconduct among its personnel are taken seriously and subjected to thorough investigation by service police.

The accusations centre on the alleged unlawful killing of a suspected jihadist in Syria, an incident that occurred two years prior. Service police have completed their investigation and submitted case files to the Service Prosecuting Authority, recommending the pursuit of murder charges.

This action suggests a critical examination of the use of force by the SAS members involved, who have reportedly denied the allegations by asserting the legitimacy of the threat posed by the deceased, thereby justifying their actions.

The involvement of the SAS in Syria is part of a decade-long covert operation aimed at dismantling Islamic State forces and supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces, particularly in the country’s northeast. This revelation comes in the wake of historical scrutiny over the conduct of British special forces, notably following the friendly fire incident in 2018 that resulted in the deaths of SAS soldier Matt Tonroe and US commando Jonathan Dunbar in Manbij, northern Syria.

The possibility of formal prosecutions proceeding from these arrests remains uncertain, with historical precedents for war crimes convictions against British soldiers being notably rare. However, the situation is compounded by a concurrent public inquiry into allegations of unlawful killings by the SAS in Afghanistan, investigating claims of 80 summary executions. As recent as 2016, senior figures within the UK government, including then cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood, voiced significant concerns over the SAS’s actions in Afghanistan, particularly regarding suspected unlawful killings of Afghan civilians. A memo by David Neal, head of Britain’s military police, highlighted widespread criticism in Whitehall towards the elite unit’s conduct.

These concerns were raised amidst investigations into up to 80 deaths occurring during SAS operations in Helmand province between 2010 and 2013, with allegations including the killing of civilians during night raids. The scrutiny led to Operation Northmoor, a military police inquiry initiated to investigate these allegations. Despite the inquiry’s findings and subsequent legal challenges, it was shut down in 2019 without leading to any prosecutions. Nonetheless, the controversy surrounding the SAS’s conduct prompted the commissioning of a public inquiry by former defence secretary Ben Wallace, aimed at thoroughly examining the claims of unlawful killings. The inquiry is ongoing.

In another development, in December 2023, a significant UK law enforcement operation targeted a drug network allegedly linked to the UK’s Special Air Service (SAS), resulting in the detention of two SAS members and a soldier’s spouse in rural Herefordshire. Authorities, including the West Mercia Police and Ministry of Defence police, conducted a raid on a farm, seizing suspected illicit drugs. The three individuals were questioned and released on bail for Class A drug offences.

The identities of the accused SAS members recently arrested over Syria have not been disclosed, and it is anticipated that their anonymity will be maintained throughout any potential legal proceedings. The SAS, headquartered in Hereford, is renowned for its stringent operational secrecy and its readiness to undertake high-risk missions in territories where the UK does not officially acknowledge a military presence. This ethos of confidentiality extends to government ministers and officials, who customarily abstain from commenting on the unit’s activities, a policy that has been in place since the 1980s.

As Dr Iain Overton, Executive Director of Action on Armed Violence, says of the recent events: “The recent arrests of SAS members for alleged war crimes in Syria, combined with the ongoing investigations into their conduct in Afghanistan and the recent allegations of SAS members’ involvement in a drug network, highlight a troubling pattern that demands immediate and comprehensive government oversight. These incidents are not isolated but indicative of a potential systemic issue within the Special Air Service that jeopardises not only the integrity of the UK’s elite forces but also the nation’s reputation on the global stage.”

“It is imperative that the government takes all of these allegations seriously, ensuring that future aspects of SAS operations are subjected to stringent oversight mechanisms. This will not only protect the values and discipline that the SAS should embody but also ensure that such elite units operate within the bounds of both national and international law. The Ministry of Defence must act decisively to address these concerns, demonstrating to both the public and the international community that it is committed to upholding the highest standards of conduct and accountability within its ranks. The fact that the UK’s Special Forces does not have Parliamentary oversight is unacceptable given such recent and repetitive scandals.”