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Britain’s Critical Overseas Military Bases RAF Akrotiri and Dhekelia and their Role in Modern Warfare

The bases are under heightened threat by Hezbollah amid calls for greater transparency around how they are being used

RAF Armourers prepare a Royal Air Force Typhoon FGR4 for air strikes in response to increased malign behaviour by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in the Red Sea, on February 3 at Raf Akrotiri, Cyprus. Photo: UPI / Alamy
RAF Armourers prepare a Royal Air Force Typhoon FGR4 for air strikes in response to increased malign behaviour by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in the Red Sea, on February 3 at Raf Akrotiri, Cyprus. Photo: UPI / Alamy

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Despite losing much of its once prestigious empire, the United Kingdom continues to have considerable foreign influence.

Playing an instrumental role in critical military conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa, the British hold two critical military bases in the Mediterranean island nation of Cyprus.

After an administration transfer to the Ottoman Empire in 1878, the UK gained a foothold in Cyprus, consolidating its hold over the region, and enabling plans to expand its influence throughout the Middle East. Two critical military bases, the sovereign bases of Akrotiri and Dhekelia, help London maintain its influence in the region today.


RAF Akrotiri and Dhekelia and British History in Cyprus

Thanks to the British navy’s force projection, the Russian Empire, only a few dozen kilometers outside the then Ottoman Empire capital of Constantinople, entered a settlement with the Ottomans.

The Ottoman administration in Constantinople transferred the administrative autonomy of the key Mediterranean island of Cyprus to the British Empire in 1878, as thanks for keeping the power balance in Europe. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the Treaty of Lausanne, the British would have full control of Cyprus as a crown colony in 1925.

Against the backdrop of the Suez Canal Crisis, British forces, under American pressure, gave up their last bases in Egypt, leaving Cyprus as a rhetorical last vestige for force projection power and operations in the region. The Dhekelia airfield and RAF Nicosia supplemented RAF Akrotiri, but the latter was dismantled due to the lack of airspace near a civilian commercial air traffic hub.

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The loss of British bases in Iraq and Egypt turned Cyprus into a vital “unsinkable aircraft carrier,” and the UK would find itself in direct conflict with a growing Greek Cypriot nationalist movement that sought independence and unification with Greece.

The EOKA insurgency and later intercommunal conflict between Greek and Turkish Cypriots stretched British assets thin as, for years, London attempted to maintain its strategic investments, which only drew the ire of many Greek Cypriots.

During the height of ethnic tensions, which also saw the president of Cyprus, Archbishop Makarios, overthrown, the Turkish military invaded Cyprus on two occasions, with the second being the deadliest and a major humanitarian catastrophe.

Approaching RAF Dhekelia and not wanting to have a wider military confrontation with Britain along with sustaining greater Greek Cypriot resistance, the Turkish military halted advancements on what is now the Green Line and the sovereign base.


Role of the Bases in Modern Regional Conflicts

The British Sovereign Bases were a major reception point for the evacuation of American and British citizens from Lebanon at the onset of the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah War. Under Joint Task Force Lebanon, the 24th MEU and Sixth Fleet helped evacuate over 15,000 American citizens and used RAF Akrotiri to allow civilians to get through.

Akrotiri was a major hub of British operations against Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya during the NATO-led intervention in 2011. The operation was called ‘Ellamy’ to enact a no-fly zone over Gaddafi’s forces.

The British Sovereign Bases were crucial in several major operations during the Syrian Civil War. Acting as forward reconnaissance and signals intelligence against the ISIS jihadist group, RAF Akrotiri contributed immensely to the anti-Islamic State coalition forces in degrading the militant group. The British base also supported strikes against the Syrian government in the backdrop of chemical weapons usage in 2018.

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RAF Akrotiri and Dhekelia are intertwined with the ongoing Israel-Hamas War and wider Israeli-Iranian conflict in the region. At least 250 surveillance flights have taken place over Gaza in 6 months by the Royal Air Force and have been recorded originating from RAF Akrotiri.

The RAF serves as a partnered nation during Operation Prosperity Guardian, and warplanes taking off from the sovereign bases engaged the Houthis on numerous occasions. During Iran’s ballistic missile and drone barrage toward Israel, the RAF from the sovereign bases played a critical role in shooting down projectiles alongside the US, France, Jordan, and others.

Nevertheless, RAF Akrotiri and Dhekelia are under heightened threat by Hezbollah, the world’s most powerful non-state armed and funded by the Mullahs of Iran. Hezbollah’s Secretary General, Hassan Nasrallah, threatened to launch missiles at Cyprus due to unfound claims that Israel may use the bases to strike targets in Lebanon.

A potential attack by Hezbollah towards the sovereign area would not only make the UK compelled to conduct military action in return, but would also draw in other major players such as the US, Greece (through guarantor status), and possibly France into a wider regional war.


Future Status

The future status of RAF Akrotiri and Dhekelia is intertwined with many pros and cons. Many Greek Cypriots see the bases as remnants of the colonial era that bring with them a haunting past—including the divisions between Cyprus the British authorities that were exacerbated by the role the West played in the 1974  Turkish invasion.

Initially preparing a process to close down Akrotiri and Dhekelia, the US convinced the UK to keep the bases active through supplementing base costs as the US quietly backed the first Turkish invasion in fear of NATO losing access, as seen in Henry Kissinger’s foreign policy stance.

The Sovereign Base Areas undoubtedly increase NATO response time to multiple crises, as seen in the housing of Cypriot refugees from the 1974 invasion, the evacuation of American citizens from Lebanon, and the humanitarian corridor to Gaza. The bases also allow for quick and firm action against all military threats, including the critical role of helping the RAF to shoot down numerous Iranian drones.

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The main arguments as to the future of the sovereign bases now include objectivity as many in Britain and Cyprus want more transparency of operations, especially as threats loom towards the Mediterranean nation. Despite ongoing economic and political troubles, Britain’s base costs could continue to be supplemented by the US if necessary as reports of a larger American military presence surface.

Ultimately, RAF Akrotiri and Dhekelia are vital bases in Cyprus that have supplemented various critical operations in the Middle East and the wider Mediterranean. However, if they continue full operations in the future the UK and, in part, the US can expect more demands on transparency from the Cypriot government, objectivity amongst constitutes, and further questions and criticisms by many in Cyprus and the West due to the cons that sometimes outweigh the pros in the Sovereign Base Areas.


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