Powerful Russian anti-ship missiles acquired by the Lebanese group give it a way to carry out a veiled threat made by its leader against US warships and highlight the serious risks of any war in the region, two sources familiar with Hezbollah’s arsenal said.
Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah warned Washington last week that his group has something in store for US ships deployed in the region since the outbreak of war last month between the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) and Israel, which is shaking the wider Middle East region.
The two informed sources in Lebanon said that Nasrallah was referring to the Hezbollah greatly enhanced anti-ship missile capabilities, which include the Russian Yakhont missile, which has a range of up to 300 kilometers.
Media reports and analysts have indicated for years that Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran, acquired Yakhont missiles in Syria after deploying its fighters there more than a decade ago to aid Syrian President Bashar al Assad in the war that devastated his country since 2011.
Hezbollah has never confirmed that it possesses this weapon.
The Shiite group’s media office hasn’t yet responded after being contacted to comment on this story.
Washington says that its deployment in the Mediterranean, which includes two aircraft carriers with their supporting ships, aims to prevent the expansion of the conflict by deterring Iran, which supports groups including the Palestinian Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad.
Hezbollah considers US warships a direct threat because of their ability to strike the group and its allies.
Nasrallah said in a speech on Friday that US warships in the Mediterranean “do not intimidate us and have never intimidated us”.
He added, “The fleets that you threaten us with, we have prepared for them as well”.
The White House said after Nasrallah delivered his speech that Hezbollah shouldn’t take advantage of the war between Hamas and Israel and that the United States doesn’t want the conflict to spread to Lebanon.
One of the sources said that Hezbollah’s anti-ship capabilities have developed significantly since 2006, when the group demonstrated for the first time its ability to strike a ship at sea by hitting an Israeli warship in the Mediterranean Sea during its war with Israel.
The source added, without going into details, “There is Yakhont, and of course there are other things besides him”.
He said that Hezbollah’s use of this weapon to target enemy warships would be an indication of the conflict turning into a major war in the region.
Three current US officials and a former US official said Hezbollah has built an impressive array of weapons that includes anti-ship missiles.
“Obviously we are paying close attention to that, and we take the capabilities they have very seriously, one of the officials said, without commenting directly on whether the group possesses the Yakhont missile.
The US officials spoke on condition of anonymity so that they could comment frankly on Hezbollah’s capabilities.
The US officials added that the US naval force recently deployed in the region includes defenses against incoming missiles, without providing further details.
The Pentagon has deployed warships in the eastern Mediterranean since October 7, when Hamas militants stormed Israel from the Gaza Strip in an attack that Israel says killed 1,400 people.
Palestinian officials say that Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip have killed more than 10,000 Palestinians since then.
Nasrallah warned Washington on Friday that avoiding a war in the region depends on stopping the Israeli attack.
Hezbollah has been exchanging fire with Israeli forces on the Lebanese border since October 8, and this represents the most dangerous escalation there since the 2006 war.
Hezbollah however, has so far used only a small part of its arsenal and tit-for-tat violence has been mostly limited to the border region.
Other groups allied with Iran, such as the Houthis in Yemen, have launched drones towards Israel, while Shiite factions backed by Iran have also fired on US forces in Iraq and Syria.
According to a report issued by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC, the Yakhont missile launches from the ground towards its target at a low altitude of between 10 and 16 meters, which prevents it from being detected.
The center said that the Yakhont missile, a variant of the B-800 Onyx missile that was first built in 1993, was developed in 1999 for export from a Russian defense company and that it can be launched from the air, land or submarines.
In response to a question about the sources’ accounts about Hezbollah obtaining the Yakhont missiles, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, “First of all, this is news that has absolutely no confirmation, and we do not know whether it’s true or not”.
“Secondly, we don’t have such information,” he added.
Nasrallah’s speech on Friday represented one of his strongest warnings yet to the United States, which holds his group responsible for a suicide attack that destroyed the US Marine Corps headquarters in Beirut in 1983, killing 241 soldiers, and for a suicide attack on the US embassy in the same year that killed 63 people.
He described the missile as the most important prize for Hezbollah’s intervention in the Syrian war, as they helped turn the tide of the war in Assad’s favor.
The two sources who spoke to Reuters in Lebanon said that Hezbollah obtained this weapon from Syria while fighting in support of Assad, whose army Russia has long been arming.
Hezbollah’s arsenal and how it was obtained are matters shrouded in secrecy.
In rare comments about it in 2021, Nasrallah explained how the group obtained Russian-made Kornet anti-tank missiles through Syria.
Hezbollah used this weapon extensively in the 2006 war.
In 2010, Moscow said it had signed an agreement to send anti-ship cruise missiles, including a version of the Yakhont missile, to Damascus.