The White House and Syrian officials confirmed Monday that a secret meeting took place in Damascus. The reason for the meeting in August was in hopes of securing the release of two Americans reported being held in Syria. President Trump sent deputy presidential aide and senior counterterrorism adviser Kash Patel and Roger Carstens, the White House’s Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs to meet with officials of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government. So far, a potential October surprise of the release of two more American hostages hasn’t happened.
President Trump’s record of securing the release of Americans held hostage overseas is impressive. His administration has been successful with the release and rescue of over fifty hostages from twenty-two different countries. They are working on the release of freelance journalist and former Marine officer Austin Tice and Majd Kamalmaz, a Syrian-American therapist. Tice disappeared while reporting in Syria in 2012 and Kamalmaz disappeared after being stopped at a Syrian government checkpoint in 2017. It is believed that both men are still alive though Syria has not provided any evidence of that. Four other Americans are reported to be hostages in Syria.
Syrian officials confirmed to CBS News that national security adviser Ali Mamlouk met with the White House envoys to discuss the release of Tice and Kamalmaz. The Syrian officials told them that their release is contingent on the removal of American military forces from the country.
The Wall Street Journal first reported the story. When CBS News asked the White House for comment, an administration official confirmed the Wall Street Journal story over the weekend was accurate, calling it “emblematic of how President Trump has made it a major priority to bring Americans home who have been detained overseas.”
After filing award-winning reports for various outlets — including McClatchy, The Washington Post and CBS News — Tice was kidnapped while covering the Syrian civil war on August 14, 2012. Since then it has remained unclear who’s holding him, or even whether he’s still alive. His family and senior U.S. officials continue to believe he is alive, and U.S. officials believe he’s being held by the Assad government.
I’ve written about Austin Tice in past posts. His parents live in Texas. They have never doubted that he is alive and they continue to fight for his release. In 2019 they confirmed that they were working closely with the Trump administration and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Tice, a 37-year-old Marine, was working as a freelance journalist in August 2012 while covering Syria’s civil war. A video released a month later showed him blindfolded and held by armed men saying “Oh, Jesus.” He has not been heard from since. However, the U.S. government’s assessment is that he is still alive, and his family continues to hold out hope.
“The United States government has assured us that Austin is still alive and assured the public most recently in a statement in April that Austin is alive and that this is a viable mission,” Debra Tice said. “So it’s not just a mom and dad and wishful thinking. It’s verifiable information.”
The Tices have spoken with President Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other administration officials. “Clearly they have a heart for bringing Americans home,” Marc Tice said, in reference to Trump’s efforts to secure the release of American hostages overseas.
But, he said “we won’t be satisfied with what they’re doing, or what we’re doing, or what anybody else is doing until Austin gets safely home. That’s fact.”
It is a hopeful sign that the secret meeting is being confirmed by both sides.The Wall Street Journal first reported on the meeting on Sunday. It should be noted the meeting was the first high-level visit by an American official to Syria in years. The last known talks between White House and Syrian officials in Damascus took place in 2010. The U.S. ended diplomatic relations with Syria in 2012 to protest Mr. Assad’s brutal crackdown on protesters calling for an end to his regime. Ibrahim Kamalmaz, one of Mr. Kamalmaz’s sons, welcomed Mr. Patel’s trip as a positive step in trying to bring his father home.
“This administration is committed to our dad’s case, and we continue to speak with officials at the highest levels of the U.S. Government to bring dad home,” he said Sunday.
In March President Trump sent a letter to Assad asking him to work with the administration. “Syria, please work with us. We would appreciate you letting him out,” Mr. Trump said at the time. The administration has imposed strict sanctions on Syria and refuses to withdraw American troops in order to try to keep Russia’s power in the region at bay. The U.S. government believes that the Assad regime, or one of its battleground allies, has Tice in custody, but American officials have not said that definitively.
One senior U.S. official voiced concern to CBS News that the White House could consider forsaking its Syria policy — even withdrawing American forces — in exchange for Tice’s return. Hundreds of American military personnel remain in the country, working with rebel forces in a bid to isolate Assad, who stands accused of war crimes including the use of chemical weapons on his own people.
There are no official, direct negotiations between the Assad regime and Washington, and Mr. T contradicting his own previous statements, but was talked out of it by then-Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. Trump has publicly taken a tough stance on the Russian-backed Syrian president. He even admitted recently that he had considered assassinating Assad at one point, contradicting his own previous statements, but was talked out of it by then-Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.
Arab media outlets have reported in recent days that Lebanon’s director of general security, Major General Abbas Ibrahim, has discussed American hostages with senior Trump administration officials, including national security adviser Robert O’Brien. Ibrahim traveled to Washington, D.C. to collect an award in recognition of his help in securing the release of another American hostage, Sam Goodwin. Now, however, he is in quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19.
We can hope the release of Tice and Kamalmaz happens soon. President Trump has a strong record of bringing home hostages and he should tout that more often. Assad shouldn’t hold his breath on Trump bringing American military support home from the region any time soon, though.