U.S. intelligence officials are reportedly concerned that the Russian paramilitary Wagner Group could provide Hezbollah with an advanced air defense system, as the Lebanon-based terror group continues to fire missiles and mortars at Israel, threatening to open a second front in its war against Hamas.
The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that American intelligence is monitoring conversations between Wagner and Hezbollah, and believes the Russian outfit could send the SA-22 to Lebanon — though it does not believe any such transfer has already occurred.
The SA-22, also known as the Pantsir, is a short-range truck-mounted air defense battery capable of taking down aircraft, helicopters, UAVs ballistic missiles and cruise missiles.
A number of SA-22s are thought to have been deployed in Syria and some were reportedly destroyed in Israeli strikes in years past.
Israel has long carried out strikes in Syria aimed at preventing advanced weapons from being transferred to Hezbollah, and is believed to have stepped up efforts recently as Iranian proxy groups ramp up attacks from Lebanon and elsewhere.
Recent weeks have seen several alleged Israeli airstrikes against Syria’s Damascus and Aleppo airports thought linked to that effort.
Israel has also carried out a string of airstrikes on military targets inside Syria in response to multiple incidents of rockets and shells fired at Golan Heights communities in recent weeks.
Wagner and Hezbollah fighters both have a presence in Syria, where they were deployed to bolster Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad during the country’s long civil war.
On Tuesday, Russia condemned Israeli airstrikes on Syria as “unacceptable,” warning that they risk triggering a spillover of the Israel-Hamas war into a wider regional conflict.
Moscow, however, ignored the Syrian fire toward Israel that preceded them.
Speaking to his Syrian counterpart on Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stressed Russia’s opposition to Israel’s strikes on Syria, and warned against any actions that could provoke an escalation in the “current explosive situation,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry said.
Lavrov said “the spread of the armed escalation to Syria and other countries of the region is impermissible,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a readout of his call with Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad.
“In that regard, [Lavrov] noted the unacceptability of Israeli air strikes on Syrian territory, which have become more frequent against the backdrop of events in the Gaza Strip,” Moscow said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, once a close Israeli ally, has been sharply critical of Israel since the war launched, as ties between Moscow and Jerusalem have soured following Israel’s support for Ukraine after Russia’s invasion.
Putin has repeatedly criticized the Jewish state’s offensive, called for aid to Gaza, and urged a ceasefire. In one remark that was viewed by some as particularly stinging, Putin compared the “unacceptable” Israeli siege of Gaza to the Nazi blockade of Leningrad, which was seen by some as implicitly likening Israel to Nazi Germany.
On Wednesday, Russia’s UN ambassador Vasily Nebenzya told the world body that Israel does not have the right to self-defense.
Last month, Russia put forth a UN Security Council proposal that failed to include an explicit condemnation of Hamas, which massacred 1,400 people in Israel last month, and was voted down by the United States, Britain, France and others.
The Putin-allied Wagner private military company has taken part in conflicts well beyond its home country’s borders but also created domestic political havoc.
During its decade-long existence, Wagner’s operations in Africa, Syria and eastern Ukraine have served Putin’s political interests, with the president appearing to relish, rather than fear, the internal rivalries created by its success.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner mercenary group, led a short-lived rebellion against Putin in June, and was killed in a plane crash in August widely believed to have been orchestrated by Moscow.