Are Cuban Troops Fighting in Syria?

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.