The armed conflict in Syria has become more complex in recent weeks, with Russia launching waves of air strikes against rebel forces, some backed by the U.S. Various rebel groups have fought government forces and each other, as the Turkish military watches nervously on the northern border. And now there may be a new player on the battlefield: Cuba.
Earlier this week, Fox News reported that Cuban military personnel are in Syria to advise the government’s soldiers and assist Russian forces.
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The report cites information received by the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies that shows the chief of Cuba’s Armed Forces recently visited Syria with the idea of striking a military alliance, a claim backed by an unnamed U.S. official.
The report set off alarm bells throughout the conservative media, with additional reports claiming, among other things, that Havana has thousands of soldiers in Syria serving in tank crews.
The White House flatly rejected the notion that the Cuban military is in Syria.
“Let me just state unequivocally we've seen no evidence to indicate that those reports are true,” press secretary Josh Earnest said Thursday.
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But that explanation isn’t going over well with Senate Judiciary Committee chair Chuck Grassley (R-IA).
"It’s disconcerting that in light of your new relationship with Cuba, the Castro regime has chosen to align with Russia and Iran in supporting Assad in Syria,” Grassley wrote Friday in a letter to President Obama.
He asked the president to answer a serious of questions, including if the administration has had any conversations with Cuba officials over the reported military action, and if Obama is “disappointed” by Havana’s decision to back Russia’s efforts to prop up the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
“Just months after your ‘historic step forward’ the regime of Raúl Castro has essentially thumbed its nose at the U.S. by aligning with Russia, Iran and Assad,” Grassley wrote. Along with most Republicans, the senator opposed the administration’s decision to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba.
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On Friday, Obama predicted any military intervention by Russia or Iran in Syria would fail.
“Iran is going to send more people in, but it’s not going to work,” he said during a White House press conference. “Their basic premise … about Syria has not worked and will not work.”
Obama said that while officials in Washington and Moscow have an agreement on “de-conflicting” with each other’s military in Syria, there is “no meeting of the minds in terms of strategy” with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“They’re not going to be able to bomb their way to a peaceful solution.”