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Inside secret talks on Syria aimed at releasing American hostages



Last summer, two U.S. officials stormed hostile territory for a secret high-stakes match with U.S. opponents.

The Syrian government officials they were to meet in Damascus seemed ready to discuss the fate of the American hostages believed to be being held in their country, including Austin Tees., a journalist caught eight years earlier. The release of the Americans would be a boon for President Donald Trump months before the November election. A breakthrough seemed possible.

Yet the trip was ultimately fruitless, with the Syrians raising a series of demands that would radically change Washington̵

7;s policies. to Damascus, including the lifting of sanctions, the withdrawal of troops from the country and the restoration of normal diplomatic relations. Equally problematic for US negotiators: Syrian authorities have not provided significant information about the fate and whereabouts of Tis and others.

“Success would bring Americans home, and we never got there,” said Kash Patel, who attended the meeting as a senior White House aide, in his first public comments on the effort.

The White House acknowledged the meeting in Octoberbut said little about it. New details emerged in Associated Press interviews conducted in recent weeks with people familiar with the conversations, some of whom spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

The AP also learned of US attempts to build goodwill with Syria long before the talks, with Patel describing how an unidentified US ally in the region offered cancer treatment to President Bashar al-Assad’s wife.

The details shed light on the sensitive and often covert efforts to free hostages held by American opponents, a process that brought Trump great success but also deadlocks. It is unclear how aggressively the new Biden administration will accelerate efforts to free Tees and other Americans held around the world, especially when the demands of the negotiating table run counter to the White House’s broader foreign policy goals.

The August meeting in Damascus was the highest-level talks between the United States and the Assad government in years. This was extraordinary given the rivalry between the two countries and because the Syrian government never admitted to holding Tice or knowing anything about his whereabouts.

Still, the moment made a promise. Trump had already shown readiness to withdraw US troops from Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East. And he had made rebuilding hostages a top foreign policy priority, celebrating the release by inviting released detainees to the White House.

Months after the talks in Damascus, when Tiss’s name reappeared in the news, Trump sent a note to Tiss’ parents living in Houston, saying he would “never stop” working for their son’s release, his mother, Debra, said. in front of the AP. But Tiss’s fate was unknown when Trump left office on Jan. 20 and remains so to this day. The former Marine had reported for The Washington Post, McClatchy, CBS and other retail outlets.

The Biden administration is also committed to making hostage recovery a priority. But he also called on the Syrian government for human rights abuses, and seems unlikely to be more receptive to the conditions Damascus raised last summer to continue even the dialogue.

Tice has held a prominent place in the public and political consciousness since disappearing 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 reporters had decided it was too dangerous, disappearing shortly before he left.

A video released weeks later is displayed he was blindfolded and held by armed men and said, “Oh, Jesus.” He has not been heard from. US authorities are acting on the assumption that he is alive. Syria has never acknowledged his detention.

Efforts to secure his release have been complicated by a lack of diplomatic relations and the conflict in Syria, where the United States is supporting about 900 troops in the east of the country in an attempt to prevent the resurgence of the Islamic State group.

“I guess he’s alive and waiting for me to come and get him,” said Roger Carstens, a former Army special forces officer who attended the meeting with Patel as the US president’s special envoy for Trump’s hostages. He was detained at Biden’s position.

During the meeting, Patel was a senior counterterrorism adviser at the White House after serving as an assistant to the House Chamber’s intelligence commission, where he gained notoriety for the progress of Republican efforts to challenge Russia’s investigation into the 2016 election Previously, he was a prosecutor in the Justice Department under President Barack Obama.

The meeting has been in progress for more than a year, Patel said, asking him to 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 by providing cancer treatment to Assad’s wife, he said, declining to provide further details. The Syrian government announced a year before the meeting that it had recovered from breast cancer.

The men arrived as part of a deliberately small delegation, passing through Damascus and seeing no obvious signs of the conflict, which has 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 Mamluk, 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.

Hostage negotiations are innate challenges, with negotiators facing demands that may seem unreasonable or contrary to US foreign policy or that can lead to nothing, even if they are met.

In that case, the conditions of the Syrians, described by many people, would force the United States to reconsider virtually all of its Syrian policy.

The United States closed its embassy in Damascus in 2012 and withdrew its ambassador as the Syrian civil war worsened. Although Trump announced the withdrawal of troops from northern Syria in 2019, the military presence remains to help protect an opposition enclave in the northeast, an area that includes oil and natural gas.

As their demands were not met, the Syrians did not offer any significant information about Tice, including evidence of life that could generate significant momentum, Patel said. Although he said he was optimistic after a “legitimate diplomatic commitment”, he looked back with regret.

“I would say this is probably one of my biggest failures in Trump’s rule without bringing Austin back,” Patel said.

The outcome of the diplomacy was deflated for Tiss’s parents, although they said it showed a possible engagement with Damascus.

“And it is possible to have this dialogue without jeopardizing the national security of the United States, without being affected by our policy in the Middle East, without all the terrible things we have been told over the years happening if The United States does recognize that there is a government in Damascus, “Tiss’s father, Mark, said in an interview.

In a statement, the State Department said returning hostages home was one of the Biden administration’s top priorities and called on Syria to release them. But the prospects for negotiations are uncertain, especially without a more substantial commitment from Damascus. The administration is unlikely to see the Syrians, summoned by the World Chemicals Supervisory Authority in December, for not declaring a chemical weapons facility as reliable partners in the talks.

Biden said little about Syria, although he included it among the international issues that the UN Security Council needs to address. In February, he authorized air strikes against Iranian-backed militias in Syria. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said the situation last week in Syria it is as heavy as ever.

Last November, after a journalist mistakenly wrote on Twitter that Tice had been released, his mother wrote a note to be passed to Trump, hoping that one day he could make the news a reality.

Trump responded by copying her note and adding his own message written by Sharpie. “Debra,” he wrote, she recalled. “I am working so hard on this. Looking for the answer. We want Austin back. I will never stop. ”

But she said the family did not need letters from the president.

“What we want here, what we want here, is to see Austin on the tarmac and get the president of the United States to shake his hand,” she said.


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