Last summer, two U.S. officials ventured into enemy territory for a secret high-ranking meeting with U.S. opponents.
The Syrian officials they were scheduled to meet in Damascus seemed ready to discuss the fate of US hostages believed to have been in their country, including Austin Tice, a journalist caught eight years earlier. The release of the Americans would be a blessing for President Donald Trump months before the November election. A breakthrough seemed possible.
Yet the trip was ultimately useless, with the Syrians raising a series of demands that would have fundamentally changed Washington̵
“Success would have been to bring the Americans home, and we never got there,” said Kash Patel, who attended the White House High Assistant meeting, in his initial public comments on the effort.
The White House acknowledged the October meeting, but said a little about it. New details have emerged in interviews conducted by the Associated Press in recent weeks with people familiar with the conversations, some of whom spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the case.
The AP also learned about US attempts to build goodwill with Syria well before the talks took place, where Patel described how an unidentified US ally in the region offered cancer treatment assistance to President Bashar Assad’s wife.
The details shed light on the sensitive and often secretive efforts to free hostages held by US opponents, a process that yielded Trump-profiled successes, but also dead ends. It is unclear how aggressively the new Biden administration will advance efforts to free Tice and other Americans held around the world, especially when demands at a negotiating table conflict with the White House’s broader foreign policy goals.
The August meeting in Damascus represented the highest level negotiations this year between the United States and the Assad government. It was extraordinary given the contradictory conditions of the two countries and because the Syrian government has never acknowledged having Tice or knowing anything about his whereabouts.
Still, the moment gave some promise. Trump had already shown a willingness to withdraw US troops from Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East. And he had made debt recovery a top priority for foreign policy by celebrating releases by inviting liberated detainees to the White House.
Months after the Damascus talks, when Tice’s name reappeared in the news, Trump sent a note to Tice’s parents, who live in Houston, saying he “would never stop” working for their son’s release, his mother Debra told AP . But Tice’s fate was unknown when Trump left office on January 20 and remains so to this day. The former Marine had reported for The Washington Post, McClatchy newspapers, CBS and other outlets.
The Biden administration has also promised to prioritize the recovery of hostages. But it has also called on the Syrian government to violate human rights and seems unlikely to be more receptive to the conditions that Damascus raised last summer to even continue the dialogue.
Tice has occupied a prominent place in the public and political consciousness since it disappeared in August 2012 at a checkpoint in a disputed area west of Damascus. He had ventured deep into the country at a time when other journalists had decided it was too dangerous and disappeared shortly before he was to leave.
A video released weeks later showed him blindfolded and held by armed men and said, “Oh, Jesus.” He has not been heard from since. U.S. authorities operate under the assumption that he is alive. Syria has never acknowledged that he is holding 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 troops in the eastern part of the country in an effort to prevent the re-emergence of Islamic State groups.
“My assumption is that he’s alive and he’s waiting for me to come and get him,” said Roger Carstens, a former Army special forces officer who attended the meeting with Patel in his capacity as US presidential envoy for hostages under Trump. He was held in the position of Biden.
At the time of the meeting, Patel was a senior White House counter-terrorism adviser after serving as a House Intelligence Committee assistant, where he gained some notoriety for advancing Republican efforts to challenge the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. was a former prosecutor for the Justice Department under President Barack Obama.
The meeting was more than a year in the making, Patel said, demanding that he seek help in Lebanon, which still has ties to Assad.
At one point, a U.S. “ally in the region” also helped build goodwill with the Syrian government by providing cancer treatment assistance to 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 a deliberately small delegation driving through Damascus and saw no clear signs of the conflict, which has killed about half a million people and displaced half of Syria’s pre – war population of 23 million over 10 years.
Inside an office of Ali Mamlouk, the head of the Syrian intelligence agency, they asked for information about Tice as well as Majd Kamalmaz, a psychologist from Virginia who disappeared in 2017, and several others.
Guide talks are innately challenging, in which negotiators face demands that may seem unreasonable or contrary to U.S. foreign policy, or that may not yield anything, even if they are satisfied.
In this case, the conditions under which the Syrians hovered, described by several people, would have required the United States to revise virtually its entire Syrian policy.
The United States closed its embassy in Damascus in 2012 and withdrew its ambassador when Syria’s civil war escalated. Although Trump in 2019 announced the withdrawal of troops from northern Syria, there remains a military presence to help protect an opposition slave in the northeast, an area that includes oil and natural gas.
When their demands were not met, the Syrians offered no meaningful information about Tice, including evidence of life that could have created significant momentum, Patel said. Although he said he was optimistic about a “legitimate diplomatic commitment”, he looks back with regret.
“I would say it’s probably one of my biggest failures during the Trump administration without getting Austin back,” Patel said.
The result of the diplomacy was deflated for Tice’s parents, although they said it showed that engagement with Damascus was possible.
“And it is possible to conduct that dialogue without threatening US national security, without affecting our Middle East policy, without all the terrible things we were told over the years could happen if the United States actually acknowledged that there was a government in Damascus, ”Tice’s father, Marc, said in an interview.
In a statement, the Foreign Ministry said bringing hostages home is one of the Biden administration’s highest priorities and called on Syria to liberate them. But the prospects for negotiations are uncertain, especially without a more comprehensive commitment from Damascus. The administration is unlikely to see the Syrians, who were called out in December by the Global Chemical Watchdog for failing to declare a chemical weapons facility, as credible negotiating partners.
Biden has said little about Syria, although he included it among international issues that the UN Security Council was to address. In February, he approved air strikes against Iranian-backed militias in Syria. State Secretary Antony Blinken said last week the situation in Syria is as serious as ever.
Last November, after a journalist mistakenly tweeted that Tice had been released, his mother wrote a note to be delivered to Trump in which she said she hoped he could one day make this news a reality.
Trump responded, photocopying her note and adding his own Sharpie-written message. “Debra,” he wrote, she remembered. “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 tarmac and make the President of the United States shake hands,” she said.