American officials have confirmed a report from the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies that Cuban special forces are operating on the ground in Syria in defense of dictator Bashar al-Assad, and are expected to operate Russian tanks in battles against anti-Assad rebels.
In a press release, the Miami institute revealed that there was evidence General Leopoldo Cintra Frias, head of the Cuban Armed Forces, had visited Syria recently and consulted with both Assad’s generals and Russian advisers, who are in Syria to defend Assad against assorted militias, possibly including the Islamic State terrorist group. Their report suggests that Syrian troops have been reinforced with Russian technology, particularly armed tanks, but that Assad’s soldiers are untrained in operating these vehicles and will need the Cubans’ help. “It will also operate as a military force against Isis and other opponents of the Assad regime,” the Institute said of the Cuban contingent.
Fox News confirmed the report with a U.S. official, who cited intelligence reports that confirmed Frias’ presence. The source told Fox News that Russian planes may have shipped the Cuban soldiers into Syria, as Cuban military personnel often train in Russia before returning home. In addition to the U.S. official, Fox News cites the Institute’s report indicating that an “Arab military officer” saw Cubans in the Damascus airport.
The PanAmerican Post reports that, in addition to Frias’ consulting help, it is estimated that around 300 Cuban soldiers are currently operating in Syria.
Speaking before the United Nations General Assembly in September, Cuban dictator Raúl Castro, a longtime ally of Bashar al-Assad, advised the audience to keep their militaries out of Syria. “Let the people resolve their own problems,” Castro said. Since then, Cuba’s staunch ally Russia has disregarded the advice and begun airstrikes against anti-Assad forces in Syria, which has apparently prompted Havana to rethink its position on intervention in Syria.
“It is a slap in the face by Raúl Castro to President Barack Obama,” said Dr. José Azel, a scholar at the University of Miami, of Cuba’s operation in Syria. “This should affect the normalization process with the United States,” Azel suggested, but adding that President Obama was “obsessed with these relations” and may not want to add tension to the relationship with Cuba by challenging Castro’s geopolitical mischief in any way.
Castro’s support for Assad contradicts President Obama’s repeated statements calling for Assad to step down. In the same General Assembly session that Castro urged the international community not to intervene in Syria, President Obama called Assad a “tyrant… who drops barrel bombs to massacre innocent children” and that he must be removed from power as soon as possible. President Obama’s statement contradicted Secretary of State John Kerry, who had said the same week that Assad’s “long-term presence” was necessary for peace to be established in Syria.
Following Russia’s invasion of Syria in late September, President Obama vowed to find a “compromise” with Russia, whose leadership has insisted that Assad remain in power in Syria indefinitely.
As Politico wrote in May, the Cuban military will be significantly strengthened by President Obama’s overtures to the Castro regime– a fact that may now embolden sworn White House enemy Assad, as well. Opening American tourism trade to Cuba will directly fund the Cuban military, writes former State Department representative James Bruno:
Today, senior FAR [Revolutionary Armed Forces] officers are in charge of sugar production, tourism, import-export, information technology and communications, civil aviation and cigar production. It is estimated that at least 60 percent of Cuba’s economy and 40 percent of foreign exchange revenues are in the hands of the military and that 20 percent of workers are employed by the FAR’s holding company, GAESA.
Tourists sipping a mojito at Varadero beach, flying by commuter to lush resorts in the Cuban keys, visiting historic attractions, enjoying the cuisine at a five-star hotel or lighting up a Cohiba after one of those meals are unconsciously contributing to the coffers of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias and the communist government to the tune of several billion dollars a year.
Bruno, who negotiated extensively with the Cuban military while working for the State Department, wrote then, in what now reads as tragic irony, that “our most reliable partner on that long-isolated island is probably going to be the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias, Cuba’s military establishment.”
That the Cuban government has decided to exercise its military muscle in Assad’s name not surprising. Cuba has been allied with Syria for decades. Cuba voted against a UN General Assembly resolution calling for Assad to resign in 2012 following extensive attacks on Sunni Muslims civilians (along with Cuba were Venezuela, North Korea, and Zimbabwe, among other rogue states). Havana hosted Assad in more peaceful times, in 2010, when the Syrian leader paid homage to Cuban poet José Martí following a meeting in Caracas with Hugo Chávez. Two years later, Raúl Castro met with a Syrian envoy in Havana to confirm his support for Assad.
In addition to supporting Assad, the communist Cuban regime has a long history of sending young Cuban men off to die in wars of little consequence to the Cuban people. Most notable among these is the Cuban intervention in Angola, in which at least 10,000 Cubans died. Fox News notes that the U.S. official confirming intervention in Syria has described the affair as akin to the “Cuba-Angola arrangement.”
The Cuban government was paid at least $250 million for sending troops to Angola, according to a 1988 Atlantic piece. The piece notes that, while “some 3,000 East Germans and 1,500 Russians are also in Angola… the Cubans do the fighting and the dying.”
The Atlantic notes that, in addition to Angola, Cuba’s military imperialism has extended to Ghana, Algeria, Guinea-Bissau, Eritrea, South Yemen, and, yes, Syria:
In 1973, probably at Moscow’s behest, Castro dispatched 500 Cuban tank commanders to Syria. These men performed well and died well in the Yom Kippur War with Israel. Not long after their debut in Syria, Cuban military personnel were training, arming, and advising Polisario guerrillas who were fighting for the independence of the Western Sahara.