Journalists, if not MPs, should always know when there is a good story out there – it is when those most expected to write about it keep silent that we should ask why.
RAF Akrotiri, Britain’s sovereign territory in southwest Cyprus, along with GCHQ’s listening post in Dhekelia, the other sovereign base area, in eastern Cyprus, have long played key roles projecting Britain’s military and intelligence-gathering in the Middle East.
RAF bombers that have just attacked Houthi targets in Yemen, and previously in Syria and Iraq, were based in Akrotiri. None of these attacks – launched in the British government’s increasingly broad definition of “self defence” – have achieved their stated objectives.
Last week, I asked the Ministry of Defence if they could answer the following questions:
What are the purposes of flights from RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus to Israel and/or Gaza?
Are those flights for intelligence-gathering and surveillance?
Are those flights for delivering weapons?
Are those flights for delivering humanitarian aid?
Are US planes delivering weapons from Incirlik in Turkey to RAF Akrotiri?
If so, are those weapons being delivered to Israel?
Is intelligence obtained by British bases in Cyprus passed on to Israel?
I was told it would take some time to get a quote from the ministry which directed me to answers to three questions that had been tabled by the Scottish Alba MP, Kenny MacAskill.
James Heappey, the armed forces minister, had said in response to MacAskill that the flights: “carried a mix of personnel from across the Armed Forces to enable the assisted departure of British Nationals from Israel, the continued movement of materials required to sustain our diplomatic mission to Tel Aviv; and the transportation of Ministers and senior officials conducting diplomatic engagements with Israeli interlocutors. We will not comment on individual movements.”
There was no answer to my question about flights from Incirlik, weapons, intelligence, or even about humanitarian aid.
Heappey had also told MacAskill that the Ministry of Defence “routinely engages with the Republic of Cyprus (RoC) on matters relating to the Sovereign Base Areas. This includes, where appropriate, informing the RoC of flights into and from RAF Akrotiri, although there is no formal requirement to do so”.
Thirdly, Heappey said it was “longstanding Government policy not to comment on Special Forces”. Officially that is true. In practice, that is far from true.
Officially-inspired “leaks” about the role abound and their actions in Iraq and Afghanistan have been so controversial, damaging and so many that the MoD have not been able deny the role of Britain’s special forces with any credibility.
An independent inquiry is currently under way into allegations, backed up by evidence, of extrajudicial murder by SAS soldiers in Afghanistan.
Reports in Declassified
MacAskill’s questions were prompted by a number of published reports by Declassified, including military operations at RAF Akrotiri.
And the respected Israeli newspaper Haaretz had reported that over 40 US transport aircraft, 20 British transport aircraft and seven heavy transport helicopters have flown to RAF Akrotiri carrying equipment, arms and forces.
Heappey told the Commons in early December that since 7 October (the day of Hamas’ massacre of more than 1,000 Israelis and the seizure of more than 200 hostages) the government had provided “no lethal or military equipment other than medical supplies to Israel”.
“This government and the UK arms industry are drenched in the blood of children”
It is hard to see how this answer squares with Britain continuing to supply arms to Israel, something Lord Cameron, the foreign secretary, has effectively confirmed to MPs. He told the Commons foreign affairs committee that he had been given no advice that he should propose that UK arms export licences to Israel be stopped.
According to Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT), the UK licenced over £442m worth of arms to Israel between May 2015 and August 2022. They included military technology, grenades, bombs, missiles, and “counter measures”.
CAAT’s media coordinator, Emily Apple, said: “Arms exports to Israel must be halted immediately. The UK government and the UK arms industry are complicit in the genocide the Israeli government is perpetrating against Palestinian people. The government has an obligation to suspend arms sales when there is a clear risk they could be used in violations of International Humanitarian Law.”
She added: “But despite overwhelming evidence of horrendous war crimes, this government is prioritising its relationship with Israel, and the profits of arms companies, over the lives of Palestinian children. The UN has described Gaza as a ‘graveyard for children’ and this government and the UK arms industry are drenched in the blood of these children.”
Heappey has also told the Commons that “for operational security reasons” he could not comment on “the specifics” of surveillance activities.
He did say, however, that RAF Boeing P-8A Poseidon MRA1 maritime multi-mission aircraft “and other surveillance assets” had been used “to improve our situational awareness in the region and provide assurance to our partners”.
Heappey has also disclosed that 500 extra British troops have been deployed to Cyprus since 7 October.
For years Israel allowed RAF bombers based in Akrotiri to use its airspace in missions attacking ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq which Britain and Israel tried to keep under wraps.
Yes and yes
British military and intelligence bases in Cyprus became embroiled in a furious row in the early 1970s between Henry Kissinger, then Nixon’s national security adviser, and then British prime minister Edward Heath.
Angered by pro-European Heath’s refusal to wholeheartedly support US foreign policy, Kissinger instructed America’s National Security Agency and the CIA to suspend intelligence cooperation with GCHQ and MI6 – a move that shocked Britain’s intelligence establishment.
Soon after, Heath decided to adopt a policy of strict neutrality during the 1973 Yom Kippur war between Israel and Arab states and refused to allow the US to use Britain’s bases in Cyprus.
During a Commons debate on Margaret Thatcher’s decision to allow US aircraft based in Britain to bomb Libya’s capital Tripoli in 1986, Heath intervened saying he had to deal with “an equally difficult question during the 1973 Yom Kippur war”.
Heath told MPs: “We were asked for the use of bases, including those in Cyprus. The reply which the government sent to the United States was No.”
The reply now seems to be Yes, Yes, Yes.
There has not been a parliamentary debate about the role of RAF Akrotiri despite the evidence reported by Declassified and others. The Commons defence committee has not summoned ministers and officials for questioning. Most of the media has kept mum.
Maybe the issue is regarded as too controversial, too provocative, or too embarrassing, to confront.