Iranians, Cubans and CIA-backed rebels: US media jumps on muddled Syria reports

A Su-34 fullback bomber © Russian Defense Ministry
Citing activists and anonymous government sources, US media outlets claim that Russian airstrikes are deliberately targeting the US-backed rebels, as Iranian and even Cuban troops are streaming into Syria.

The Associated Press reported that Iranian Revolutionary Guards began arriving to Syria two weeks ago, after Russia launched an air campaign against the Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL). Citing a “regional official” with “deep knowledge of operational details in Syria,” AP estimated the number of Iranian troops at 1,500.

Another report of Iranian troops came from the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a frequent Western media source about the Syrian conflict. The SOHR claimed that Iranian troops were arriving to a military base in Latakia to prepare for a push by Syrian government forces on Idlib province.

READ MORE: Who is behind Syrian Observatory for Human Rights? Nimrod Kamer investigates for RT

Fox News, meanwhile, reported that a top Cuban general “recently visited Syria.” Citing claims by the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies and seconded by an anonymous US government official, the network said that General Leopoldo Cintra Frias and a “group of Cuban military personnel” were in Syria to join Russian operations in support of the Syrian government.

There are no Iranian troops fighting in Syria, Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said. Speaking to the Lebanon-based al-Mayadeen television channel, Zoubi said that some Iranian officials were in Syria “for consultations only,” Iran's Press TV reported.

Claims of Iranian and Cuban military presence in Syria come as the Pentagon and State Department have accused Russia of bombing US-backed rebels instead of IS positions.

Meanwhile, US media outlets have begun openly acknowledging that a secret CIA program has trained and equipped an estimated 10,000 fighters to oppose the government of President Bashar Assad. According to AP, these rebels – backed by the US, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar – include “some ultraconservative groups and al-Qaida affiliates.”

“Putin is deliberately targeting our forces,” one anonymous US official told Fox News on Wednesday, estimating that up to 150 CIA-trained rebels have been killed in Russian air attacks. “Our guys are fighting for their lives.”

"They aren't targeting ISIL, so there is nothing to coordinate," the official added. "The only role Russia can or should play in Syria is in assisting Assad to step aside. Everything else is counterproductive. They have been completely disingenuous about their desire to fight ISIL."

READ MORE: Combat report: Russian jets make 41 sorties against ISIS in Syria, cut off its arms supplies

Recent efforts by the Pentagon to train and equip a “moderate” rebel force in Syria have ended with the capture or desertion of the fewer than 100 fighters it produced. The US has since “adjusted” the program to supply weapons and ammunition to commanders deemed reliable, a spokesman for the US-led coalition against IS admitted Tuesday.

Moscow has criticized the ammunition deliveries, saying they will likely end up in terrorist hands again. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov questioned the US-led coalition's objectives in Syria, stressing that Washington must decide whether its aim is to eliminate the jihadists or to use extremist forces to pursue its own political agenda. 

“It is probably not very nice [for them] to see how effective[ly] our military is working compared to the more than a year-long operations [of] the coalition created by the United States of America,” Lavrov told the Russian channel NTV on Tuesday.

Last week, CNN and other media outlets reported claims by anonymous US officials that four of the 26 cruise missiles fired by Russian ships from the Caspian Sea had veered off-course and crashed in Iran. The Russian Defense Ministry confirmed all missiles had hit their intended targets, while the Iranian government said there were no indications of Russian missiles crashing in Iranian territory.