Last summer, two US officials entered hostile territory for a secret high-stakes meeting with American opponents.
Syrian government officials they are scheduled to meet in Damascus appear ready to discuss the fate of US hostages believed to have been arrested in their country, including Austin Tice.The journalist was arrested eight years earlier. The American release will benefit President Donald Trump months before the November election. Progress appears to be possible.
But the trip was ultimately fruitless, with the Syrians adding to demands that fundamentally alter Washington̵7;s policy. Against Damascus, including the lifting of sanctionsWithdrawal of troops from the country and the restoration of normal diplomatic relations. As much as a problem for the American negotiators: Syrian officials have not provided any meaningful information about the fate and whereabouts of Tice and others.
“Success will bring Americans home and we are never there,” said Kash Patel, who attended the meeting as a senior White House assistant, in the first public comment on the effort.
The White House acknowledged the meeting last month. CBut talk a little about it. New details emerged in interviews The Associated Press conducted in recent weeks with people familiar with the talks, some of whom spoke of the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.
The AP also learned of the United States’ efforts to build goodwill with Syria before negotiations take place, with Patel explaining that an unidentified US alliance in the region provided wives with cancer treatment. Of President Bashar Assad, however.
The details illustrate a delicate and often secret attempt to release hostages by U.S. opponents, a highly successful process for Trump. But there is an end as well It is not clear how the new Biden administration will advance efforts to liberate Tice and other Americans around the world, especially as demand at the negotiating table clashes with the White House’s broader foreign policy goals.
The August meeting in Damascus was the highest level of multi-year talks between the United States and the Assad government. It is special for the hostile relations of the two countries and because the Syrian government has never accepted to hold Tice or know anything about his whereabouts.
Until then, he made some promises. Trump has expressed his willingness to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East. And he has made hostage recovery a top priority of foreign policy, celebrating its release by inviting independent detainees to the White House.
Months after Damascus talks, as Tice’s name reappeared in the news, Trump sent a letter to Tice’s parents, who live in Houston, saying he “won’t stop” working for their son. He, his mother Debra, told the AP but the fate of Tice was unknown when Trump retired on Jan. 20 and remains to this day. Former Marine Corps previously reported to The Washington Post, McClatchy, CBS and other outlets.
The Biden administration itself pledged to focus on hostage recovery. But the Syrian government has also called on the Syrian government to violate human rights, and it appears unlikely to be receptive to the conditions Damascus raised last summer in order to continue negotiations.
Tice has held a prominent position in public and political consciousness since disappearing in August 2012 at a checkpoint in the controversial western Damascus area. He traveled deeper into the country at a time when other journalists decided it was too dangerous and disappeared shortly before his departure.
A video published a week later shows. He was blindfolded and caught by an armed man and said, “Oh Jesus.” He hadn’t heard it ever since. Syria has never admitted to arresting him.
Attempts to secure his release have been complicated by a lack of diplomatic ties and conflicts in Syria, where the United States retains some 900 troops in the eastern part of the country to fend off the Islamic State’s recovery.
“My assumption is that he is alive and he’s waiting for me to come to pick him up,” said Roger Carstens, a former Army Special Forces officer who attended a meeting with Patel as the US special envoy in the United States. Hostage affairs under Trump said He was kept in position by Biden.
At the time of the meeting, Patel was a senior counterterrorism adviser at the White House after serving as an assistant to the House Intelligence Committee, where he gained notoriety for developing Republican efforts to Challenging an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, he served as Justice Department Attorney under President Barack Obama.
The meeting took more than a year to prepare, Patel said it wanted him to seek help in Lebanon, where Assad is still involved.
At one point, the US “regional alliance” helped build a warm welcome to the Syrian government by assisting Assad’s wife in treating cancer, declined to provide further details. The Syrian government announced a year before the meeting that she was recovering from breast cancer.
The men arrived as part of a small delegation, deliberately driving through Damascus and seeing no clear signs of the conflict that killed half a million people and displaced half of Syria’s 23 million population. People in the last 10 years
Inside the office of Syrian intelligence chief Ali Mamlouk, they asked for information about Tice and Majd Kamalmaz.A psychologist from Virginia, who went missing in 2017 and many others.
Hostage negotiations are inherently challenging, with negotiators confronted with claims that may appear unreasonable or in conflict with US foreign policy, or may not work at all, even when satisfied.
In this case, the Syrian conditions described by many would require the United States to overhaul most of its Syrian policy.
The US closed its embassy in Damascus in 2012 and withdrew its diplomats as the Syrian civil war intensified, although in 2019 Trump announced the withdrawal of northern Syria. But its military presence still protects the opposition cordon in the northeast, an area with oil and natural gas.
With their demands not being met, Syrians did not provide meaningful information about Tice, including living evidence that could create a major driving force, Patel said, although he said he. Being an optimist, after the “correct diplomatic engagement” he looked back with regret.
“I would say it was probably one of my biggest failures under the Trump administration that Austin did not return,” Patel said.
The outcome of the diplomacy dwindled Tice’s parents, although they said it showed that involvement with Damascus was possible.
“And it is possible there will be negotiations where US national security is not threatened, with our Middle East policy not being affected without all the horrors we have been informed over the years. It could have happened if the US was aware of the government of Damascus, ”Tice’s father Mark said in an interview.
In a statement, the State Department said taking the hostages home was one of the top priorities for the Biden government and urged Syria to free them. But the prospect of negotiations is uncertain, especially without the more important commitments from Damascus. It is unlikely that the administration will see a Syrian, who was called in December by chemical watchdogs around the world, that it could not declare chemical weapons distribution facilities as a reliable negotiator.
Biden spoke little about Syria, although he included it in an international issue that the UN Security Council should address. In February, he allowed air strikes against Iranian-backed armed forces in Syria, said Foreign Minister Antony Blinken last week. In Syria it is the worst it has ever been.
In November, after a reporter mistakenly tweeted that Tice was released, his mother wrote a memo to Trump, saying she hoped he could one day make the news come true.
Trump responded, photocopied her memoir and added a message written by Sharpie of his own, “Debra,” he wrote, she said. Looking for answers We want Austin back. I will never stop. “
But she said the family did not want a letter from the president.
“All we need here, what we’re asking here is to see Austin on the asphalt and have the president of the United States shake his hand,” she said.