Israelis evacuate north after clashes with Hezbollah 3:36
(CNN) -- The White House on Tuesday released newly declassified intelligence confirming that Russia's Wagner mercenary group is preparing to provide air defense capability "to Hezbollah or Iran," according to National Security Council spokesman John Kirby.
Wagner was preparing to provide the capability under the direction of the Russian government, Kirby said.
The new information did not specify where the missile system would come from. However, CNN previously reported that the Wagner group was tasked with carrying out the delivery of an SA-22 surface-to-air missile system from Syria to the Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon.
- U.S. Intelligence Suggests Bashar al-Assad Agreed to Send Hezbollah a Russian Anti-Missile System via the Wagner Group
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 information told CNN last month.
"We will closely monitor whether Wagner provides military equipment to Hezbollah or Iran," Kirby said. "We are prepared to use our competent authorities on counterterrorism sanctions against Russian individuals or entities that make these destabilizing transfers."
Russia's role in directing the transfer of an air defense system to Hezbollah reflects Moscow's ongoing arms relationship with Iran and its proxies, which has only strengthened since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. The United States is also concerned that Iran is preparing to provide Russia with ballistic missiles, which it showed 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 the Russian and Syrian armed forces to bolster the Assad regime against the Syrian opposition. Hezbollah has begun withdrawing its fighters in recent years, but the group is also backed by Iran, which is a close ally of Assad. A source familiar with Western intelligence previously told CNN that there is evidence of growing collaboration between Hezbollah and Wagner in Syria.
- What You Need to Know About Hezbollah, the Powerful Iranian-Backed Group on the Border with Israel
The possibility that Hezbollah will soon have a new air defense system comes amid concerns that militants are considering opening a new front in Israel's war against Hamas, on Israel's northern border with Lebanon. The U.S. has repeatedly warned Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed groups to stay out of the conflict and deployed aircraft carriers and troops to the region to try to deter a potential escalation.
However, Iranian-backed militias have launched more than 60 strikes against U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria since Oct. 17, prompting the U.S. to respond with strikes against the militants.
The U.S. intelligence community calculates that Iran has been calibrating its response to Israel's military intervention in Gaza to avoid a direct conflict with Israel or the United States, while still imposing costs on its adversaries through its proxy groups, CNN reported.
However, Iran does not maintain perfect control of its umbrella of these proxy groups, officials say, particularly over Hezbollah. This group is allied with Hamas, which attacked Israel on October 7, and has long positioned itself as a fighter against Israel.
Hezbollah and Israel have attacked each other in northern Israel and southern Lebanon for the past month, but U.S. officials believe Hezbollah has no plans to enter the war by force for now.
Israel-Palestine ConflictWagner GroupHezbollahIran