- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The head of Cuba’s armed forces recently traveled to Syria, according to a Miami-based research group that claims a cadre of defense officials from the communist island have been dispatched to join Russia’s growing military operations in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

In a memo circulated to reporters this week, the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami said it had received inside information that Havana was sending the defense officials to operate sophisticated Russian tanks that Moscow has been providing to the Syrian military. The visit comes as the Obama administration is pushing forward with a rapprochement after a half-century of hostility between Havana and Washington.

Cuban military chief Gen. Leopoldo Cintra Frias personally visited Syria as part of the deployment, according to the report, which provided few other details. U.S. intelligence and defense officials pushed back against the idea any visit foreshadowed a major new alliance with the regime of Mr. Assad, which has also received fresh aid from Russia and Iran in recent days.

One source said the Cintra Frias trip was plausible — given the Cuban government’s long history with Moscow and its support for the Assad regime — and that a small number of Cuban military personnel may be on the ground in Syria, but that anything beyond that was “wild speculation.”

Any Cuba support for Syria would be a political embarrassment for the White House, given the intense criticism Mr. Obama faced in pushing to normalize ties with the communist regime of President Raul Castro. Iran’s support for Mr. Assad presents a similar problem, given the Obama administration’s push to pass a major nuclear deal with Tehran.

The diplomatic detente with Cuba over the past year could be undermined if Havana found to now be openly providing military support for the Assad regime, a top enemy of the administration.

The memo by the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies (ICCAS), meanwhile, claimed that Cuban leader Raul Castro has already “expressed publicly his support for the Syrian regime and his solidarity with Russian and Iranian objectives in the Middle East.”

Attempts to reach officials at the Cuban Embassy in Washington were unsuccessful on Wednesday.

Fox News reported that a U.S. official had anonymously confirmed that Cuban paramilitary and special forces units are on the ground in Syria and said the units may have been training in Russia and may have arrived in Syria on Russian planes. When contacted, neither the Pentagon nor various U.S. intelligence agencies would confirm the report.

Officials at U.S. Central Command, which oversees American military operations in Syria, said they were aware of the ICCAS report, but declined to comment. U.S. Southern Command, which oversees Pentagon operations in Latin America, also declined to comment. And a spokeswoman at the Office of the Secretary of Defense said she could neither confirm nor deny the claims.

Jose Azel, a senior researcher at the ICCAS, said the institute’s claim about Gen. Frias’ visit in Syria had originated with a source in the war-torn nation who recently saw a group of Cubans “in civilian clothes getting out of an airplane.”

“From what we understand, Russia has been supplying fairly sophisticated tanks to the Syrians and maybe the Syrians don’t have enough personnel to handle these tanks and that’s where the Cubans come in,” he said. “Cuba owes Russia a ton of money that Russia is writing off, so maybe this is a quid pro quo of some sort.”

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