It follows images taken a week ago of a Russian military contractor wearing a British combat shirt emblazoned with the Union Flag patch sewn on to the left upper arm. Wearing another nation’s emblem directly contravenes a raft of international conventions including the Hague and Geneva and is technically banned even by the Russian Federation.
Though parliament voted not to allow British ground forces to enter Syria, this does not apply to Special Forces which are not subject to parliamentary consent.
A small contingent of SAS and SBS soldiers remain in Syria today as part of a joint special operations task force who maintain a regional surveillance capability and overwatch of so-called jihadi prisoners guarded by Kurdish forces.
As part of their role, they provide “ground awareness and target recognition” for RAF planes, which were called in to attack remnants of Islamic State jihadists as recently as May.
Moscow is understood to have thousands of private military contractors in Syria, most of whom are former soldiers who are highly paid to carry out black operations – missions which regular Russian forces cannot get involved in to ensure the Kremlin maintains so-called “plausible deniability”.
One image shows a Russian mercenary riding on the back of an open to vehicle in Syria with the union flag clearly visible on his left arm.
It was posted on July 7 on a Russian language website used by current and former members of the shadowy Russian Wagner Group. Founded in 2014, it is headed by former GRU Lt Col Dmitry Utkin and is linked to Putin crony Yevgeny Prigozhin.
While private military companies are technically illegal in Russia, experts say Wagner and other groups, such as Shield and Patriot, have in recent years played an increasingly important role in allowing Putin to realise ambitions abroad.
In 2018 independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported that several Russian-speaking men, who executed and mutilated a detainee on video in the eastern Homs province, were employed by Wagner.
In 2019 around 200 Wagner fighters are said to have been killed or injured in a four-hour firefight between US-led pro-democracy forces and government forces and militia in the Battle of Khasham.
And in March this year, three NGOs filed an official legal complaint in Moscow over allegations that members of the Wagner group beheaded a deserter from the Syria Army in 2017.
It is not the first time that Russia has been connected with underhand military practices.
Russian mercenaries fighting for the Serbs during the Bosnian War were regularly accused of changing their emblems to don Croatian insignia in order to shift the blame for atrocities.
And during the illegal invasion of Crimea in 2014 Russian troops violated international conventions when they removed all insignia to appear as so-called “little green men”.
Last night a former SAS soldier who served in Afghanistan said: “When it comes to Russian mercs there are no rules. They don’t care about international law, the United Nations or the Red Cross – all they care about is success and they will do whatever it takes.
“If that means pushing the blame for their covert actions on to others, all the better. When it comes down to it, all witnesses need to remember is the flag on the arm.”
It is also true that Russian uniforms are so poor in quality that they are generally derided by troops in favour of off-the-peg Nato versions.
Rob Lee, a former US Marine turned academic who now specialises in Russian defence – and who posted the picture on Twitter – said: “Russian mercenaries have previously used camouflage with UK flags on them and worn them during training. In this case, I think the mercenary just purchased a multicam top and this one had a UK flag on it.”
But Tobias Ellwood MP, a former infantry captain with the Royal Green Jackets and who now serves as chair of the commons defence select committee, said the image should be reported to the Foreign Commonwealth and Development office as a matter of urgency.
“This is a clear breach of the Geneva convention and demonstration of deception and disinformation which, we know, Russia excels at,“ he said.
“It is all about confusing the battle picture. People will rightly look at this image on social media and ask – why are British troops in Syria?
“This is very serious. We know that Russia has a major presence in Syria. This should be taken up by the Foreign Office who must demand an explanation.”