- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Russian President Vladimir Putin mocked the Obama administration’s rejection of high-level talks to coordinate military action in war-torn Syria, amid reports that Cuba may join Iran in coming to the aid of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad, Moscow’s top ally in the region.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the Russian offer to send a high-level team headed by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to Washington was a sign of desperation for Mr. Putin’s air campaign in support of Mr. Assad, but Mr. Putin said the rejection represented the deeply muddled thinking in the U.S. and other parts of the West about the need to act decisively against Islamic State militants fighting the Syrian leader.

“How is it possible to work together?” Mr. Putin asked at an investment forum in Moscow. “I think some of our partners simply have mush for brains. They do not have a clear understanding of what really happens in [Syria] and what goals they are seeking to achieve.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow offered to send Mr. Medvedev and a delegation to the U.S. “to agree on a number of joint steps” over Syria.

American and Russian military planes are flying in the same airspace as a U.S.-led coalition attacks the Islamic State terrorist group. Mr. Lavrov said the plan also would have included a delegation of U.S. military analysts traveling to Moscow.

The report of a possible Cuban military role in Syria represented a fresh diplomatic headache for the White House, as President Obama pushes forward with plans to normalize ties with Havana.

A Miami-based research group said Gen. Leopoldo Cintra Frias, the head of Cuba’s armed forces, and a cadre of defense officials from the communist island have been dispatched to join Russia’s growing military operations in support of Mr. Assad.

In a memo circulated to reporters, the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami said it received inside information that Havana was sending the defense officials to operate sophisticated Russian tanks that Moscow has been providing to the Syrian military.

Any Cuban support for Syria would be a political embarrassment for the White House given the intense criticism of Mr. Obama as he pushed to normalize ties with the regime of President Raul Castro. Iran’s expanded troop deployment in Syria presents a similar problem, given the Obama administration’s push for a major nuclear deal with Tehran.

Mr. Earnest said high-level U.S.-Russian talks would make no sense when the goals of Moscow and Washington remain so far apart. Mr. Obama has said repeatedly that Mr. Assad must step down as part of any long-term solution to the brutal Syrian civil war.

“We’re not interested in doing that, as long as Russia is not willing to make a constructive contribution to our counter-ISIL effort,” said Mr. Earnest, using another name for the Islamic State. “Russia has their own agenda, and it’s an agenda right now that they’re pursuing on their own. So it’s not particularly surprising to me that President Putin would resort, in some desperation, to try to send the second highest ranking official in the Russian government to the United States to try to convince us to join them. But the fact is that is a request that’s fallen on deaf ears.”

Iran escalates

Even as Iran’s top leaders this week were approving the nuclear deal Mr. Obama championed, Tehran was also expanding its military mission in support of Mr. Assad.

Iran has sent as many as 1,500 troops into northern and central Syria in the first such open deployment in the country’s civil war. The Iranian troops are joining fighters from Lebanese ally Hezbollah in an offensive against rebels and taking advantage of cover from Russia’s air campaign, a regional official and Syrian activists said Wednesday. While Iran in the past has acknowledged sending military advisers to Syria, the new development is the first confirmation of Iranian fighters taking part in combat operations in Syria.

The arrival of Iranian troops fighting under the cover of Russian air power further strengthens the view that Russia’s main goal is to shore up Mr. Assad’s embattled government.

The buildup of the Iranian military is almost certain to fuel the civil war in Syria, which has claimed the lives of more than 250,000 people and displaced half of the country’s population. It also highlights the far-reaching goals of Russia’s military involvement in Syria.

Russia began carrying out airstrikes in Syria on Sept. 30, and Syrian troops and allied militiamen began a ground offensive against rebels in central Syria a week later. Russia says its airstrikes are meant to weaken the Islamic State group and other terrorists in Syria, but Western officials and Syrian rebels say most the strikes have focused on areas in central and northern Syria where the extremist group does not have a strong presence.

Mr. Earnest said the administration is watching “quite closely” the reports of Iran beefing up its troops in Syria.

“It’s consistent with what they’ve done in the past, but it’s an indication of just how isolated Russia is as they carry out this unilateral action,” he said. “The only people that are coordinating with them right now is the fledgling Assad government such as it is, and the Iranians, who have been engaged in the kind of destabilizing activity inside of Syria that has made them the target for U.S. and international sanctions.”

The leader of Tajammu Alezzah, a faction of the CIA-backed Free Syrian Army, told The Associated Press that the addition of Iranian troops “will only add more destruction and displacement” to the conflict.

“Sending more troops from Hezbollah, and Iran only increases the shelf life of the Syrian regime, which is destined to end,” said Maj. Jamil Saleh. He said their presence on the ground is not new but has been kept quiet.

The regional official, who has deep knowledge of operational details, said the Iranian fighters began arriving in Syria about two weeks ago after the Russian airstrikes began and have accelerated in recent days. The Iranian-backed Hezbollah group also has sent a fresh wave of fighters to Syria, he told AP.

He said the Iranian fighters were arriving at the Damascus airport and transported to a military base in the coastal town of Latakia, from where they were deploying on the ground — mainly in the northern provinces of Idlib and Aleppo province. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss military affairs.

The official said the Iranian troops and their allies were building up for a huge offensive against insurgents in Aleppo province, which would be announced in the coming days.

Mr. Lavrov also told the Russian Duma that when Moscow invited partners to join the anti-terrorism center based in Baghdad, it got an “unconstructive” response. Iraqi officials revealed this week that they are conducting airstrikes against Islamic State targets with intelligence provided by the center, which is staffed by Russians, Iranians and Syrians.

“We invited our other partners to take part in activities of the information center so that everyone could see the full picture, so that everyone is on the same page to avoid any misunderstanding. The response was unconstructive,” Mr. Lavrov said. “They said, ‘Why in Iraq? It is not safe there.’ We explained that according to our estimates, this center can operate in quite favorable conditions. But if there is a wish to coordinate actions in some other place, we are ready for this.”

Guy Taylor contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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