The Syrian Foreign Ministry denied on Wednesday that it is holding American journalist Austin Tice or other Americans. This is in response to Biden’s recent accusation that the Syrian government is detaining him. It is the tenth anniversary of Austin going missing at a checkpoint in a contested area west of Damascus. That was shortly after his 31st birthday on August 14, 2012.
Last week I wrote about the tenth anniversary of Tice’s capture. His parents are cautiously optimistic that the Biden administration is pursuing their son’s release. With a spotlight on Americans held overseas against their will by countries that are bad actors, such as Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan in Russia, the Tice family remains hopeful that the Biden administration will be able to make arrangements for Austin’s release.
Today the Syrian Foreign Ministry denied holding Austin Tice in a statement.
The Syrian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Damascus “denies it had kidnapped or is holding any American citizen on its territories.”
“The U.S. issued last week misleading and illogical statements by the American president and secretary of state that included baseless accusations against Syria that it had kidnapped or detained American citizens including former U.S. Marine Austin Tice,” the statement said.
The Syrian Foreign Ministry denied in its statement having any secret contacts with U.S. officials on the missing Americans, adding that “any official dialogue with the American government will only be public based on the respect of Syria’s sovereignty.”
Last week Biden released a statement that marked the tenth anniversary of Austin’s abduction. He was covering the civil war in Syria as a freelance journalist. It was a rare mention of Tice and indicated that the United States is certain that he is being held by President Bashar Assad’s government.
“We know with certainty that he has been held by the government of Syria,” Biden said in his statement last week. “We have repeatedly asked the government of Syria to work with us so that we can bring Austin home.”
State Department Spokesman Ned Price told reporters on Tuesday that the U.S. government has pushed Syria to return every American. On Tice’s case specifically, he said, the Biden administration has “engaged extensively — and that includes directly — with Syrian officials and through third parties.”
“Syria has never acknowledged holding him,” Price said of Tice, adding that “we are not going to be deterred in our efforts. We are going to pursue every avenue for securing Austin’s safe return.”
Typically, negotiations for Americans detained overseas in foreign countries are kept quiet and behind the scenes. Families of some detained Americans have had success in recent months by getting loud in their demands that the Biden administration bring their loved ones home. In the case of those held in Russia, it’s easy to see Russia’s motivation to cooperate at this time. With Putin’s invasion of Ukraine ongoing, Putin is using that background to make prisoner swaps with the United States. But for Syria, it isn’t so clear why they would be expected to cooperate now.
There has been some help from a Lebanese security official as recently as May. It was the Trump administration that reopened talks with Assad’s government.
In May, top Lebanese security official Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim met with U.S. officials in Washington as part of mediation efforts between the U.S. and Syria for Tice’s release. Ibrahim, the chief of Lebanon’s General Security Directorate, has mediated complicated hostage releases in the past.
In the final months of the Trump administration, two U.S. officials — including the government’s top hostage negotiator, Roger Carstens, a former Army Special Forces officer — made a secret visit to Damascus to seek information on Tice and other Americans who have disappeared in Syria. It was the highest-level talks in years between the U.S. and Assad’s government, though Syrian officials offered no meaningful information on Tice.
I tend to think that if a deal could have been struck with Syria for Austin’s release, the Trump team would have gotten it done. They had great success in bringing Americans home. Maybe the Biden administration bringing it out in the open will have a positive result.
American journalist Austin Tice has spent a decade in captivity in Syria. I am committed to bringing home all U.S. hostages and wrongful detainees abroad and will continue to pursue the release of Austin and other U.S. hostages in Syria.
— Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) August 10, 2022
The Biden administration doesn’t exactly have a great track record on dealing with foreign governments. We’ll hope that this time brings a good result for Austin Tice and his family in Houston.