Wagner Group members have been tasked with delivering a Russian-made missile defence system to Iran-backed Hezbollah, it has been claimed.
Two sources familiar with intelligence gathered by the US claimed to the CNN these Wagner mercenaries are carrying out an order by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has agreed to transfer the Russian Pantsir-S1 to the Lebanese group, a proscribed terrorist organisation in the UK.
Wagner Group mercenaries have been operating in Syria for several years alongside Hezbollah militants, with the joint aim to bolster the Assad regime against the Syrian opposition.
A third source familiar with Western intelligence claimed there was evidence of Hezbollah and Wagner tightening their links in Assad’s nation.
The system being delivered was originally provided by Moscow to the Syrian government, the two sources alleged, but it isn’t clear how much influence Russia had over the decision to provide the system to Hezbollah.
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Washington DC-based think tank Institute for the Study of War (ISW) noted Israel, which isn’t recognised as a country by either Syria or Iran – often launches airstrikes on weapon shipments travelling from Tehran into and through Assad’s territory.
The Syrian leader, the ISW continued, may have resorted to asking Wagner to deliver the Pantsir to Hezbollah “to act as a deterrent to potential Israeli interdiction efforts”.
The think tank also said it had previously noted “Russia may be able to facilitate weapons shipments in Syria without risking Israeli airstrikes”, and the Kremlin may “believe that this Israeli reluctance will extend to Wagner”.
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Following the death in August of Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin, Russia has been trying to take control of the mercenaries.
Earlier this month, it was reported Prigozhin’s son Pavel restarted recruitment of Russian army soldiers for the group under the banner of the Russian National Guard – a move which reportedly prompted disagreements over whether the entirety of Wagner would be incorporated into Rosgvardia.
While Syria has been at war with Israel since the country was formally established in 1948, Russia maintains good relations with Tel Aviv – which did not enforce sanctions against Moscow following its invasion of Ukraine.
Israel, the ISW noted, has also “historically relied on Russia to curb Iranian activities in Syria”.
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But the Kremlin also refuses to proscribe Hamas – which launched an unprecedented assault on Israel on October 7 – as a terror organisation.
In late October, Russian President Vladimir Putin invited senior Hamas leaders to Moscow, a move which sparked outrage among many in Israel.
Speaking about the meeting between Hamas officials and Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, the country’s Foreign Ministry said diplomats emphasized “the need for a cessation of hostilities in and around the Gaza Strip and the prompt provision of humanitarian assistance to the affected Palestinian population”.
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