Inside secret Syria talks geared toward releasing American hostages

But the journey was in the end fruitless, with the Syrians elevating a collection of calls for that may have basically reshaped Washington’s coverage towards Damascus, together with the removing of sanctions, the withdrawal of troops from the nation and the restoration of regular diplomatic ties. Equally as problematic for the American negotiators: Syrian officers provided no significant data on the destiny and whereabouts of Tice and others.

“Success would have been bringing the Individuals residence and we by no means received there,” Kash Patel, who attended the assembly as a senior White Home aide, mentioned in his first public feedback concerning the effort.

The White Home acknowledged the assembly in October, however mentioned little about it. New particulars have emerged in interviews The Related Press carried out in latest weeks with individuals conversant in the talks, a few of whom spoke on situation of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.

The AP has additionally discovered about U.S. makes an attempt to construct goodwill with Syria effectively earlier than the talks occurred, with Patel describing how an unidentified U.S. ally within the area provided help with most cancers remedy for the spouse of President Bashar Assad.

The small print make clear the delicate and infrequently secretive efforts to free hostages held by U.S. adversaries, a course of that yielded high-profile successes for Trump but additionally useless ends. It’s unclear how aggressively the brand new Biden administration will advance the efforts to free Tice and different Individuals held around the globe, notably when calls for at a negotiating desk conflict with the White Home’s broader international coverage objectives.

The August assembly in Damascus represented the highest-level talks in years between the U.S. and the Assad authorities. It was extraordinary given the 2 international locations’ adversarial relationship and since the Syrian authorities has by no means acknowledged holding Tice or understanding something about his whereabouts.

But the second provided some promise. Trump had already proven a willingness to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria and elsewhere within the Center East. And he had made hostage restoration a prime international coverage precedence, celebrating releases by inviting freed detainees to the White Home.

Months after the Damascus talks, as Tice’s title resurfaced within the information, Trump despatched a word to Tice’s mother and father, who reside in Houston, saying he “would by no means cease” working for his or her son’s launch, his mom, Debra, advised the AP. However Tice’s destiny was unknown when Trump left workplace on Jan. 20 and stays so to today. The previous Marine had reported for The Washington Publish, McClatchy newspapers, CBS and different retailers.

The Biden administration, too, has pledged to make hostage restoration a precedence. Nevertheless it has additionally referred to as out the Syrian authorities for human rights abuses and appears unlikely to be extra receptive to the circumstances Damascus raised final summer season with the intention to even proceed the dialogue.

Tice has occupied a outstanding spot within the public and political consciousness since disappearing in August 2012 at a checkpoint in a contested space west of Damascus. He had ventured deep into the nation at a time when different reporters had determined it was too harmful, disappearing quickly earlier than he was to depart.

A video launched weeks later confirmed him blindfolded and held by armed males and saying, “Oh, Jesus.” He has not been heard from since. U.S. authorities function beneath the idea he’s alive. Syria has by no means acknowledged holding him.

Efforts to safe his launch have been sophisticated by an absence of diplomatic relations and the battle in Syria, the place the U.S. maintains about 900 troops within the jap a part of the nation in an effort to forestall the Islamic State group’s resurgence.

“My assumption is he’s alive and he’s ready for me to return and get him,” mentioned Roger Carstens, a former Military Particular Forces officer who attended the assembly with Patel in his capability as U.S. particular presidential envoy for hostage affairs beneath Trump. He was saved within the place by Biden.

On the time of the assembly, Patel was senior counterterrorism adviser on the White Home after serving as Home Intelligence Committee aide, the place he gained some notoriety for advancing Republican efforts to problem the investigation into Russian interference into the 2016 election. He was beforehand a Justice Division prosecutor beneath President Barack Obama.

The assembly was greater than a 12 months within the making, Patel mentioned, requiring him to hunt assist in Lebanon, which nonetheless has ties with Assad.

At one level, a U.S. “ally within the area” additionally helped construct goodwill with the Syrian authorities by offering help with most cancers remedy for Assad’s spouse, he mentioned, declining to supply additional particulars. The Syrian authorities introduced a 12 months earlier than the assembly that she had recovered from breast most cancers.

The lads arrived as a part of an deliberately small delegation, driving via Damascus and seeing no apparent indicators of the battle that has killed round a half million individuals and displaced half of Syria’s pre-war inhabitants of 23 million over 10 years.

Inside an workplace of Ali Mamlouk, the top of the Syrian intelligence company, they requested for details about Tice in addition to Majd Kamalmaz, a psychologist from Virginia who vanished in 2017, and several other others.

Hostage talks are innately difficult, with negotiators going through calls for that will appear unreasonable or at odds with U.S. international coverage or that will produce nothing even when glad.

On this occasion, the circumstances floated by the Syrians, described by a number of individuals, would have required the U.S. to overtake nearly its complete Syria coverage.

The U.S. shuttered its embassy in Damascus in 2012 and withdrew its ambassador as Syria’s civil struggle worsened. Although Trump in 2019 introduced the withdrawal of troops from northern Syria, a army presence stays to assist shield an opposition enclave within the northeast, an space that features oil and pure fuel.

With their calls for unmet, the Syrians provided no significant data on Tice, together with a proof of life, that might have generated important momentum, Patel mentioned. Although he mentioned he was optimistic after a “professional diplomatic engagement,” he appears again with remorse.

“I’d say it’s in all probability one in all my largest failures beneath the Trump administration, not getting Austin again,” Patel mentioned.

The end result of the diplomacy was deflating for Tice’s mother and father, although they mentioned it confirmed engagement with Damascus was potential.

“And it’s potential to have that dialogue with out america nationwide safety being threatened, with out our Center East coverage being impacted, with out all of the horrible issues we had been advised over time may occur if america truly acknowledged that there was a authorities in Damascus,” Tice’s father, Marc, mentioned in an interview.

In an announcement, the State Division mentioned bringing residence hostages is among the Biden administration’s highest priorities and referred to as on Syria to free them. However prospects for talks are unsure, particularly and not using a extra substantial dedication from Damascus. It’s unlikely that the administration sees the Syrians, referred to as out in December by the worldwide chemical watchdog for failing to declare a chemical weapons facility, as credible negotiating companions.

Biden has mentioned little about Syria, although he included it amongst worldwide issues that the U.N. Safety Council ought to tackle. In February, he approved airstrikes in opposition to Iran-backed militias in Syria. Secretary of State Antony Blinken mentioned final week the state of affairs in Syria is as grave as ever.

Final November, after a journalist erroneously tweeted that Tice had been launched, his mom wrote a word to be delivered to Trump saying she hoped he might sooner or later make that information a actuality.

Trump responded, photocopying her word and including his personal Sharpie-written message. “Debra,” he wrote, she recalled. “Working so exhausting on this. Searching for the reply. We wish Austin again. I’ll by no means cease.”

However she mentioned the household doesn’t want letters from the president.

“The factor that’s wished right here, the factor we’re asking right here, is to see Austin on the tarmac, and to have the president of america shake his hand,” she mentioned.

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