Britain’s military elite, the Special Air Service (SAS) working alongside a US Army Delta Force unit inflicted a heavy blow on ISIL when a mission to kill a senior Islamic State (IS) commander Abu Sayyaf was carried out deep inside eastern Syria earlier this year. The mission was preceded by an intensive surveillance operation on Sayyaf for the US-led mission by the British special forces unit before the operation to kill him was authorised by Washington and London.
To aid in identification of friendly units between the two special forces teams the British troops wore US uniform during the operation and were inserted in to Deir ez-Zor by American Osprey aircraft to establish the observation post which recorded the militants’ lucrative black market oil and gas trade. This vital information was then fed back to the military planners in Washington for Delta Force’s raid to guarantee the maximum damage not only to ISIL’s command structure but also to their financial support chain.
The operation began with an attack on Sayyaf’s compound by US fast-jets before 50 Delta Force troops stormed the site. In the battle that followed 15 ISIL fighters including Sayyaf himself were killed. A number of prisoners were also taken including Sayyaf’s wife, Umm Sayyaf, and reportedly a slave girl his family was keeping. There were no American or British casualties and US forces stated that it was the SAS’ reconnaissance operation that made it all possible.
While the SAS is best known for its hostage rescue and raiding operations, reconnaissance operations such as the one carried out at Deir ez-Zor are a major part of the elite unit’s mission. During the Falklands War, the troubles in Northern Ireland, the Gulf and Afghanistan this largely unsung mission of the SAS has perhaps been its most important contribution to final victory by locating key enemy personnel or equipment and organizing an attack. Despite the popular image of the SAS charging in to battle, 99% of the time they will coordinate air or artillery operations to destroy the target before slipping away leaving the enemy’s survivors to wonder just how the British knew of their location. This most recent operation is therefore almost a textbook example of the SAS’ work in this area (excluding the US uniforms of course).
Back in the UK news of the SAS’ involvement in the operation has sparked yet more questions over the extent of British forces operating in Syria following the parliamentary vote not to send troops in to the war-torn country last year. Last month some politicians claimed David Cameron’s government was circumventing the vote by having British pilots fly operations over Syria with French and American air forces.