The Cuban government has denied multiple independent reports that Cuban military officials have traveled to Syria to help President Bashar al-Assad organize a military offensive against the Islamic State and other Sunni forces working to overthrow him.
In a terse statement, the Cuban foreign ministry said over the weekend it “categorically denies and refutes the irresponsible and unfounded information regarding the supposed presence of Cuban troops in the Syrian Arab Republic.” It did not elaborate on this claim or deny its alliance with Assad, who visited Cuba as recently as 2010.
Nor did the Cuban foreign ministry use the occasion to reaffirm statements made by President Raúl Castro at the 70th meeting of the UN General Assembly this year, in which he reiterated his claim that “the Syrian people are capable of resolving their disputes by themselves, and demand the end of external interference.” That statement was made before Russia began airstrikes in support of Assad in Syria, and the Cuban government has remained quiet on the issue since.
The Cuban foreign ministry statement echoes that by White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest on Friday, in which he told reporters that America has “no evidence to indicate” that Cuba is active in Syria. Earnest did note, however, that it was “likely” Russia would be attempting to involve allies in their campaign for Assad in the Mideast nation.
At least three reports surfaced last week linking the Cuban military to Syria. The University of Miami released the initial report, which alleged that Cuban Armed Forces head General Leopoldo Cintra Frias had visited Damascus to strategize with Syrian, Russian, and Iranian generals. Fox News released a separate report citing a U.S. official that claimed Cuban troops were en route to Syria to help Syrian troops man Russian-made armed vehicles, with which they had no experience. Other reports speculated on the number of Cuban troops– as many as 300.
Outlets sympathetic to both Russia and Cuba have taken to attacking Fox News as a means of disparaging the report, even though the initial– and most thorough– report indicating Cuba’s presence in Syria was from an academic institution, not the Fox News media outlet. The pro-Russia Center for Research on Globalization, for example, published a blog post chiding Fox News for publishing “rumors” while also defending Cuba’s prior imperialist ventures in Africa. “Cuba’s position during the Angolan conflict is consistent with the diplomatic approach they have repeatedly espoused in Syria, that the Syrian conflict is a domestic problem for the Syrian people and government to resolve themselves,” the post claims, disregarding Cuba’s direct intervention in Angola that led to the deaths of 10,000 Cubans.
Multiple American voices have questioned Cuba’s alleged presence in Syria. Senator Chuck Grassley has been paramount among them, issuing a letter to the White House demanding an explanation for the situation in Syria. “You’ve called on Congress to take further actions to engage Cuba and normalize relations,” he writes to President Obama, “However, just months after your ‘historic step forward’ the regime of Raul Castro has essentially thumbed its nose at the U.S. by aligning with Russia, Iran and Assad in combating rebel fighters backed by the United States.”
While questions remain regarding the Cuban role in the ongoing Syria saga, Russia has made clear their intention of being the principal actor in returning stability to the war-torn Mideast country. Russian officials have made clear in statements that they do not acknowledge any opposition to Assad as legitimate, and they will work to disable any faction that opposes him. American officials have said they hope to find a way to work with Russia while President Obama insists publicly that Assad must be removed from power. The American government continues to arm “moderate” Syrian rebels, like the Free Syrian Army group, which are now directly at odds with Russian troops.
In addition to Russia, American allies fighting Assad in Syria will also have to contend with Iran. Reports indicate that as many as 2,000 Iranian troops may be traveling to Syria to fight for Assad. “We have military advisers in Iraq and Syria at the request of the governments of the two countries … We are going to step up our aid to Syria in the form of advice on the fight against terrorism,” Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian said Saturday.