Author’s Note: This article is expanded from a piece originally published on Defence Report on August 3rd.
Russia’s recent bombing of a Syrian base used by UK and US Special Forces exposes the flaws in the UK’s blanket “no comment” approach. The differences in the US and UK responses to the incident reveal that this policy is neither desirable nor standard practice amongst the UK’s allies.
The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) has recently revealed that, in June, a Russian aircraft targeted a garrison in Southeastern Syria which was used by American and British Special Forces in their fight against ISIS. The attack missed 20 British Special Forces by just 24 hours and killed four US-backed rebels.
US and UK reactions to the strike
Much of the subsequent discussion has been on the specifics of the attack and its implications for future intelligence sharing with Russia; however, few have considered massive difference in the US and UK response. Given that the two allies shared use of the base, one may expect both countries to have shared a sense of outrage at the attack. However, their responses have been hugely different.
The US has very publicly criticised the actions of Russia. After a similar attack in July, “US military and intelligence officials” gave a number of details about the two strikes and argued that it was part of a continued attempt by Russia to pressure the Obama administration into agreeing closer cooperation over the skies of Syria. Many officials, albeit anonymously, also shared their concerns over implications of the strike for the pending intelligence sharing agreements between the two countries. After the attack, Secretary of State John Kerry went to Moscow in a “hastily organized and very secretive” meeting to try to avoid similar incidents from happening again.
In stark contrast, the UK has remained silent. In response, the Ministry of Defence (MOD) simply stated: “We do not comment on Special Forces”. In fact, even as this WSJ article marks the second article in two months documenting the presence of UK Special Forces in Syria the UK Government remains silent and refuses to acknowledge they are operating in the country.
The UK’s “no comment” policy
The MOD’s “long-held policy” of not commenting on Special Forces is well established. This most recent revelation adds to a long list of other incidents where, against mounting evidence, the UK has continued to avoid acknowledging their presence. For example, in March this year, when a story emerged that a British Special Forces Operative had fired on and destroyed an ISIS suicide truck, the response was: “The Ministry of Defence does not comment on Special Forces.” Similarly, in June 2016, when it was reported that British Special Forces are on the front line in Syria in the fight against ISIS, the MOD responded that: “It is our longstanding policy that we don’t comment on Special Forces operation”.
Given the changing nature of these conflicts this approach may no longer be feasible. Special Forces are increasingly sent on long-term deployments to coordinate local forces and take part in combat in conflict zones, rather than the traditional “sharply in, sharply out” approach. For example, reports from Iraq, Libya and Syria indicate that Special Forces are now being used to train, advise and fight alongside local forces. Not only does this mean the presence of Special Forces is more likely to be exposed but it means that the justification of a blanket “no comment” approach – to avoid compromising the mission – are no longer as applicable.
The approaches of the UK’s allies
Moreover, as the US’s public criticisms of Russia reveal, this blanket “no comment” approach is also not standard practice. A recent report by Dr Jon Moran found that a number of the UK’s allies are far more accountable for their use of Special Forces. In the US, for instance, the deployment of Special Forces from the CIA now requires the notice of “the eight leaders of the relevant intelligence committees in Congress” and “JSOC is accountable via the JSOC commander to the Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of State for Defense or the President”. There is also greater accountability in Australia which, rather than investing the authority to commit forces to military action in one man, shares responsibility among the Cabinet and the National Security committee through a need for “consensus decision-making”. Similarly, in Canada, the decision is taken at the highest political and military levels but Special Forces are accountable to the head of the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command, who in turn is accountable to the Minister of Defence and Prime Minister. Unfortunately, the UK’s no comment policy led Moran to argue that, amongst these allies, “[t]he British government is the most tightlipped of all”.
Remote Control’s recent work also documents a number of instances that the US, Canada and Australia have discussed the deployment of Special Forces. For example in 2015 a US spokesperson announced the deployment of US Special Forces in Syria. He reported the number (50) and their purpose (to strengthen anti-ISIS forces) and defended the decision against accusations of mission creep. Similarly, in November 2015, the then-Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced the deployment of 200 Australian Special Forces “to advise and assist local security forces” in Iraq. The same month, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the deployment of 69 Canadian Special Forces to undertake a training mission, again, in Iraq. While none of the countries gave a lot of detail, they acknowledged the presence – and number – of Special Forces, defined their mission and allowed some room for discussion and debate around their deployment.
The need for change
The UK’s current policy is not only embarrassing when stories such as this surface but could have negative implications for the quality of UK intervention abroad. First, better accountability and transparency around Special Forces would mean they are used because they are the best solution rather than the easiest solution to a problem. In 2013, a leaked UK Ministry of Defence document argued that one way to continue conducting military operations despite the risk-averse nature of the British public was “investing in greater numbers of [special forces]” – indicating that the danger of the UK prioritising easy above best is real. Second, it is crucial for the success of any security strategy that its effectiveness can be assessed and adjustments made on the basis of that assessment.
The reaction of US scholars, policy makers and journalists in the wake of the recent Russian strike is a case in point. The US’s decision to announce the deployment and the purpose of Special Forces in Syria from the outset, and decision to announce this most recent strike, give these groups a chance to debate its implications for relations with Russia, the US’s operations in Syria more generally and assess whether the US’s stated goals are being met. In contrast, the UK lacks such a debate because most scholars, journalists and policymakers do not know the extent of UK involvement in the country and have not been informed of the mission’s stated purpose. Without the level of discussion possible in countries such as the US, the UK lacks the same sounding board and its policies may suffer as a result.
Russia’s recent strike points to the flaws in the UK’s continued “no comment” policy. When Special Forces rarely stay secret in a country, and fewer of the UK’s allies take the same blanket “no comment” approach, we should be asking why the UK continues to.
Abigail Watson is Research Officer at Remote Control Project. Abigail holds an MA (with Distinction) in Contemporary European Studies, with a trans-Atlantic track, from the University of Bath and a BA in Politics from the University of York. Abigail writes on issues such as the new challenges to international humanitarian law and Britain’s foreign, security and defence policy.