The Wagner Group headquarters on June 27, 2023 in Saint Petersburg, Russia.
The White House released newly declassified intelligence on Tuesday confirming that the Russian mercenary organization Wagner was preparing to provide an air defense capability “either to Hezbollah or Iran,” according to the National Security Council spokesperson, John Kirby.
Wagner was preparing to deliver this capability at the direction of the Russian government, Kirby said.
The newly declassified intelligence does not specify where the missile system may have come from. But CNN previously reported that the Wagner Group had been tasked with delivering an SA-22 surface-to-air missile system from Syria to the Iran-backed Hezbollah militant group in Lebanon.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has agreed to provide Hezbollah with the Russian-made missile defense system, known as Pantsir, two people familiar with the intelligence told CNN last month.
“We will closely monitor whether Wagner supplies military equipment to Hezbollah or Iran,” Kirby said. “We are prepared to use our counterterrorism sanctions authorities against Russian individuals or entities carrying out these destabilizing transfers. »
Russia’s role in leading the transfer of an air defense system to Hezbollah reflects the ongoing arms relationship between Moscow and Iran and its proxies, which has only strengthened since the invasion of Ukraine by Russia in February 2022. The United States is also concerned that Iran is preparing to supply Russia with ballistic weapons. missiles, which Iran presented to Russian Defense Minister Shoigu during the latter’s visit to Tehran in September, Kirby said Tuesday.
Wagner and Hezbollah fighters have also operated in Syria for years, where they work alongside Russian and Syrian armed forces to support the Assad regime against the Syrian opposition. Hezbollah has begun withdrawing its fighters in recent years, but the group is also supported by Iran, which is a close ally of Assad. A source close to Western intelligence previously told CNN that there was evidence of growing collaboration between Hezbollah and Wagner in Syria.
The possibility that Hezbollah could soon acquire a new air defense system comes as militants plan to open a new front in Israel’s war against Hamas, on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon. The United States has repeatedly warned Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed groups to stay out of the conflict and has positioned aircraft carriers and troops in the region to try to deter possible escalation.
Yet Iran-backed militias have launched more than 60 attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria since Oct. 17, prompting the United States to respond with strikes against the militants.
The US intelligence community believed that Iran had calibrated its response to Israeli military intervention in Gaza to avoid direct conflict with Israel or the United States, while making its adversaries pay through its proxy groups. , CNN reported.
But Iran does not maintain perfect control over these proxy groups, officials say, particularly Hezbollah. Hezbollah is an ally of Hamas, the group that attacked Israel on October 7, and has long positioned itself as fighting against Israel.
Hezbollah and Israel have engaged in cross-border strikes in northern Israel and southern Lebanon over the past month, but U.S. officials say Hezbollah is not currently considering going to war in strength.