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Explained: Why Wagner arming Hezbollah poses huge worry amid Middle East conflict

The possible transfer of arms to Hezbollah via the mercenary Wagner group raises worries regarding Moscow's involvement in the region and its increasingly close ties with Iran. Girish Linganna reports

Explained Why Wagner arming Hezbollah poses huge worry amid Middle East conflict
First Published Nov 3, 2023, 1:46 PM IST

The Russian paramilitary organization Wagner Group intends to supply an air-defense system to Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia, US media outlets citing intelligence officials have reported. The system in question is the Russian SA-22, which utilizes anti-aircraft missiles and air-defense guns to intercept aircraft. Although Washington has not yet verified the actual delivery of the system, US officials are closely monitoring discussions involving Wagner and Hezbollah. The possibility of this delivery is a source of significant concern.

The Russian Embassy did not provide a response to a request for comment. However, a US spokeswoman conveyed her concern on Thursday night regarding the potential transfer of weapons, as reported by The Wall Street Journal.

The information, as stated by Adrienne Watson, the spokeswoman for the White House's National Security Council, is indeed concerning. Russia has declined to condemn Hamas for its terrorist attack on Israel, and they have recently hosted Hamas officials in Moscow. All of this is happening while Russia is involved in ongoing conflicts in Ukraine.

Russian SA-22 system already in Syria

Wagner troops have had a significant role in supporting President Bashar al-Assad, who is an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, in Syria.

This intelligence emerges in the context of broader apprehensions that Hezbollah, a militia backed by Iran, might initiate a northern front against Israel. In an effort to dissuade Hezbollah and Iran, the US has deployed an aircraft carrier to the Eastern Mediterranean.

Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, is set to deliver a speech on Friday, marking his first public remarks since the October 7 attack by Hamas on Israel and Israel's subsequent military response. Analysts will closely examine this speech for any indications regarding Hezbollah's intentions to become involved in the ongoing conflict.

Wagner Group has its personnel stationed in Syria, where they are joined by Hezbollah fighters who are there to assist President Assad in his efforts against the Syrian opposition.

According to an individual knowledgeable about US intelligence reports, the Russian SA-22 system has already been supplied to Syria and could potentially be sent to Hezbollah with the approval of President Assad if the delivery proceeds.

The possible transfer of arms to Hezbollah raises worries regarding Moscow's involvement in the region and its increasingly close ties with Iran.

Concerns over Moscow-Tehran Ties

According to certain foreign-policy experts, supplying a Russian air-defense system to a group with Iranian backing, such as Hezbollah, might serve as a form of rewarding Tehran for its assistance. The SA-22 air-defense system, known as the Pantsir, is mounted on a military vehicle with wheels. This system was developed by Russia with the purpose of intercepting aircraft, drones, and enemy precision-guided munitions.

After the founder of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin died in a plane crash in August, the Kremlin has taken steps to acquire several of its assets, despite the organization's initial status as a private military entity. 

During a recent congressional hearing, Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed concerns about the increasing ties between Moscow and Tehran and their impact on Middle East security, without specifically addressing Wagner's involvement.

Addressing the Senate Appropriations Committee, Secretary of State Antony Blinken emphasized the interconnected nature of the conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East. He pointed out that due to the reduction of Russia's conventional military supply routes, it has increasingly relied on Iran for support. In return, Moscow has provided Iran with more sophisticated military technology, raising concerns about potential threats to Israel's security. These statements aimed to support the Biden administration's appeal to Congress for military assistance to both Israel and Ukraine. 

Middle East Conflict = Advantage Russia

Russia's ongoing conflict in Ukraine and its economic isolation have limited its ability to exert influence in Israel and Gaza, although it still retains some level of influence.

In the diplomatic realm, last week, both Russia and China exercised their veto power at the United Nations Security Council to block a resolution that called for several actions, including halting the arming of Hamas, establishing ceasefires to enable aid deliveries, and safeguarding civilians. Russia's UN ambassador expressed dissatisfaction with the resolution, asserting that it would not prevent an Israeli ground offensive in Gaza.

Russia faced criticism from the Israeli government after it hosted a delegation of Hamas officials in Moscow at the end of last month. The Israeli government accused the Kremlin of granting legitimacy to the group through this action.

Russia's Foreign Ministry justified the meeting by citing concerns about hostages held by Hamas and the well-being of foreign citizens trapped in Gaza. Hamas took at least eight dual national Russian-Israeli hostages during its October 7 assault, and regrettably, they have not been released yet.

The ongoing crisis in the Middle East has played into Russia's favour by allowing Moscow to strengthen its ties with nations critical of Israel. According to a European official, the Russians are the primary beneficiaries of the current situation, and their actions at the UN are seen as causing confusion and complexity in the situation.

Russia has maintained enduring military connections with certain Iranian-backed groups in the region.

According to Charles Lister, who heads the Syria and Countering Terrorism and Extremism programs at the Middle East Institute in Washington, the Russian military, including its special operations forces, has established a remarkably close operational relationship with Hezbollah in Syria over recent years. This affiliation is widely known and continues to exist.

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