Last summer, two American officials ventured into hostile territory for a secret high-risk encounter with American opponents.
Syrian government officials who were due to meet in Damascus seemed ready to discuss the fate of the hostages in the United States believed to be held in their country, including Austin Tice., a journalist captured eight years earlier. The release of the Americans would be a blessing to President Donald Trump months before the November election. A discovery seemed possible.
However, the trip turned out to be unsuccessful, with the Syrians raising a series of demands that would have fundamentally reshaped Washington’s policy. to Damascus, including the removal of sanctions, the withdrawal of troops from the country and the restoration of normal diplomatic ties. As problematic as it is for American negotiators: the Syrian authorities have not offered meaningful information about the fate and whereabouts of Tice and others.
“Success would have brought Americans back home and we never got there,” said Kash Patel, who attended the meeting as a senior adviser to the White House, in his first public comments on the effort.
The White House acknowledged the meeting in October, but said little about it. New details emerged in interviews that the Associated Press conducted in recent weeks with people familiar with the conversations, some of whom spoke on condition of anonymity due to the delicacy of the matter.
The AP also learned of US attempts to build goodwill with Syria well before the negotiations took place, with Patel describing how an unidentified US ally in the region offered cancer treatment assistance to President Bashar Assad’s wife.
The details shed light on sensitive and often secret efforts to free hostages held by U.S. opponents, a process that has yielded high-profile successes for Trump, but also dead ends. It is unclear how aggressively the new Biden government will advance efforts to free Tice and other Americans from around the world, especially when demands at a negotiating table conflict with the broader objectives of the White House’s foreign policy.
The August meeting in Damascus represented the highest level negotiations in years between the United States and the Assad government. It was extraordinary, given the adverse relationship of the two countries and because the Syrian government never acknowledged having detained Tice or knowing anything about his whereabouts.
However, the moment offered some promise. Trump had previously shown a willingness to withdraw American troops from Syria and other parts of the Middle East. And he had made hostage recovery one of the top foreign policy priorities, celebrating the release by inviting released detainees to the White House.
Months after the negotiations in Damascus, when Tice’s name resurfaced on the news, Trump sent a note to Tice’s parents, who live in Houston, saying he would “never stop” working for the release of his son, said his mother, Debra , to the AP. But Tice’s fate was unknown when Trump stepped down on January 20 and remains today. The former Marine had worked for The Washington Post, McClatchy newspapers, CBS and other media.
The Biden government has also pledged to prioritize hostage recovery. But he also called on the Syrian government for human rights abuses and it seems unlikely that he will be more receptive to the conditions that Damascus raised last summer, in order to continue the dialogue.
Tice has held a prominent place in public and political consciousness since his disappearance in August 2012 at a checkpoint in a contested area west of Damascus. He ventured into the depths of the country at a time when other reporters decided it was too dangerous, disappearing just before he left.
A video released weeks later showed he blindfolded and held by armed men and saying, “Oh, Jesus.” He hasn’t been heard since. American officials assume that he is alive. Syria never acknowledged having arrested him.
Efforts to secure his release have been complicated by the lack of diplomatic relations and the conflict in Syria, where the United States maintains about 900 soldiers in the eastern part of the country in an effort to prevent the Islamic State group’s resurgence.
“My guess is that he is alive and is waiting for me to come and get him,” said Roger Carstens, a former Army Special Forces officer who attended the meeting with Patel as a US presidential special envoy for hostage issues. under Trump. He was held in position by Biden.
At the time of the meeting, Patel was a senior counterterrorism adviser at the White House after serving as an adviser to the House Intelligence Committee, where he gained some notoriety for promoting Republican efforts to challenge the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 elections. he was a Justice Department prosecutor under President Barack Obama.
The meeting took more than a year to happen, said Patel, demanding that he seek help in Lebanon, which still has ties to Assad.
At one point, a US “ally in the region” also helped build goodwill with the Syrian government, providing assistance with cancer treatment for Assad’s wife, he said, refusing to provide further details. The Syrian government announced a year before the meeting that she had recovered from breast cancer.
The men arrived as part of an intentionally small delegation, driving through Damascus and seeing no obvious signs of the conflict that killed about half a million people and displaced half of Syria’s pre-war population of 23 million in 10 years.
At the office of Ali Mamlouk, head of the Syrian intelligence agency, they asked for information about Tice and also about Majd Kamalmaz, a Virginia psychologist who disappeared in 2017, and several others.
Hostage conversations are innately challenging, with negotiators facing demands that may seem irrational or at odds with US foreign policy or that may not produce anything, even if they are satisfied.
In this case, the conditions suggested by the Syrians, described by several people, would have required the United States to review practically its entire policy towards Syria.
The United States closed its embassy in Damascus in 2012 and withdrew its ambassador when the civil war in Syria worsened. Although Trump announced in 2019 the withdrawal of troops from northern Syria, a military presence remains to help protect an opposition enclave in the northeast, an area that includes oil and natural gas.
With their unmet demands, the Syrians have offered no meaningful information about Tice, including a proof of life, which could have generated a significant boost, said Patel. Although he said he was optimistic after a “legitimate diplomatic engagement”, he looks back with regret.
“I would say it’s probably one of my biggest failures under the Trump administration, not having Austin back,” said Patel.
The result of diplomacy was disheartening for Tice’s parents, although they said it showed that involvement with Damascus was possible.
“And it is possible to have this dialogue without the national security of the United States being threatened, without our policy for the Middle East being impacted, without all the horrible things that we have been told over the years that could happen if the United States really recognized that there was a government in Damascus, ”Tice’s father Marc said in an interview.
In a statement, the State Department said bringing hostages home is one of the Biden government’s top priorities and asked Syria to release them. But the prospects for the negotiations are uncertain, especially without a more substantial commitment from Damascus. The government is unlikely to see the Syrians, summoned in December by the global chemicals control body for failing to declare a chemical weapons facility as reliable negotiating partners.
Biden said little about Syria, although he included it among the international problems that the UN Security Council should address. In February, he authorized air strikes against Iran-backed militias in Syria. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week the situation in Syria it is as serious as ever.
Last November, after a journalist mistakenly tweeted that Tice had been released, his mother wrote a note to be handed to Trump saying she hoped that one day he could make that news a reality.
Trump responded by copying her note and adding his own message written in Sharpie. “Debra,” he wrote, she recalled. “Working so hard on this. Looking for the answer. We want Austin back. I will never stop. “
But she said the family does not need letters from the president.
“What is wanted here, what we are asking for here, is to see Austin on the track and for the President of the United States to shake his hand,” she said.