VICE News and Middle East Eye have reported that the United Kingdom has been deploying Secret Intelligence Service (known as MI6) personnel, as well as small numbers of special forces, in Yemen, Libya and Somalia. With regards to Libya, it is the first official confirmation that the UK has a direct combat role in the country, as then Prime Minister David Cameron had publicly said that any deployment would be discussed in Parliament. These forces, which include the special forces’ Special Reconnaissance Regiment, are seconded to the SIS, which places them under the jurisdiction of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), therefore making their presence in each respective country deniable by the Ministry of Defence.
The role that the UK will play in Libya and Somalia is different from the role in Yemen. The SIS and special forces — which include the Special Air Service, or SAS — will be teamed with the Jordanian special forces in Libya and Somalia, whereas in Yemen the SIS have been using human intelligence (embedded agents and informants) to assist in the American drone war against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) — a Yemen-based branch of Al Qaeda. Though the British government has decried the drone war as immoral and illegal and has said that it would no longer assist with it, the SIS has continued to aid the Americans by providing information about AQAP targets in Yemen.
Middle East map by Flickr user: openDemocracy
According to comments made to VICE News, the operations in Yemen appear to have ended when the British Embassy in Yemen was closed in February 2015. However, the Jordanian-UK operations in Libya and Somalia are very much underway. The King of Jordan, King Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein, told American congressional leaders during the week of 11th January 2016 that the SAS, in concert with Jordanian special forces and Kenya, are preparing to target al-Shabab in Somalia. He also said that the SAS are using Jordanian special forces as embedded translators in Libya since Libyan Arabic slang and Jordanian Arabic slang are similar.
During the congressional meeting, the King stated that he is concerned that American leadership — and the international community at large — are dragging their feet with regards to combating global terrorism. He acknowledged that the fight against Islamist militancy should be a homegrown effort, but said that it was vital to have international support.
King Abdullah can hardly be blamed for such a stance, as Jordan has, for decades, been a bulwark of stability in the Middle East region, and a country largely untouched by militant Islamism. But Jordan shares borders with Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Israel and is therefore literally at the crossroads between regional powers and conflicts. King Abdullah is well aware of this fact and seeks to secure his country against the region’s troubles. This security is now proactive and extends to activity beyond his own borders, for fear that said regional troubles will one day target Jordan. With this action, Jordan is positioning itself as a regional defender against global terrorism. King Abdullah II takes this role very seriously as he believes the fight against global Islamism, particularly against Islamic State, or IS, is the ‘third world war.’
This is a new role for Jordan in the world and in the region. Yet as conflict and chaos continue to abound in the region, more drastic and proactive security measures have been deemed necessary. Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign in Yemen is proof of this, as is Iran’s Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ being active in Syria. Though these interventions by Saudi Arabia and Iran have far more nefarious purposes, the point still stands that the method of intervention is new.
Iranian Flag. By Flikr user: Blondinrikard Fröberg
Traditionally, regional actors engaged each other through proxies — sponsored militias and the like engaged to fight on an actor’s behalf to pursue that actor’s interests. Now, with even the low-key Jordan taking part in direct intervention, it can be said that a new age of regional intervention and interaction has begun.
This new age is different because these new actions are deliberate and open violations of another country’s sovereignty, which is illegal under international law. As well, these actions are more responsible in nature. Instead of using proxy militias, these new interventions are strikes undertaken by uniformed and fully equipped military forces. This means that not only are regional actors taking more responsibility for their armed foreign activity, as they are now readily identifiable, but also that they are more invested in the outcome to such an extent that they no longer trust proxies. With IS at large in Libya, Iraq and Syria, with Libya and Syria in states of lawlessness and with Syria getting bloodier and bloodier (despite a so-called ceasefire), the stakes in the region have been raised. Proxies no longer work because Syria is awash with them, yet the civil war has no end in sight and there is no clear advantage in any direction. The only substantial progress that has been made in any country has been through official military interventions, like airstrikes.
This is Jordan’s intention, to create substantial progress in fighting the lawlessness and instability of the region by combatting actors like IS and al-Shabab. Jordan is trying to protect its own security by trying to salvage regional stability with the help of a Western power in the UK.
The UK is intervening for the sake of global security; it has the means, in the SIS and special forces, and it understands the imperative. And with a lack of American leadership in the Middle East right now and as an intervening power in Libya, the UK is responsible and knows that something must be done. Together the two countries are acting to bolster stability. However, in a region where stability is so rare, fighting for the sake of it will be like throwing a pebble into an ocean. The causes of instability are multifaceted and interconnected and include the likes of extremism, drought, and a lack of education, employment and economic opportunity. Other causes include corruption, civil war, a lack of functional governmental institutions, infrastructure, gender disparity, and insufficient access to proper healthcare. There are also the aspects of high child mortality rates, poverty and migrants fleeing all of the above.
Combatting instability requires more than just special forces — it requires fully-fledged development. Military operations can only hope to destroy the current military threats that spawned as symptoms of instability. It cannot alleviate the conditions that gave rise to the instability in the first place. Jordan, the UK and the United Nations will need to do so much more if they hope to see the Middle East ever emerge as a viable, stable environment. As we have learned in the past with Iraq and Afghanistan, military ventures can only accomplish so much, and without the proper planning and development they may only foster more instability.
[All opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect in any way those of Exploration as a whole]