Inside a secret Syrian talks aimed at freeing American hostages

Last summer, two US officials set foot on hostile territory for a secret high-stakes meeting with US adversaries.

Syrian government officials they were due to meet in Damascus are ready to discuss the fate of U.S. hostages believed to have taken place in their own country, including journalist Austin Tyce, who was captured eight years ago. It was like. The release of Americans will benefit President Donald Trump months before the election. And the breakthrough seemed possible.

However, the Syrians have raised a series of demands to fundamentally reshape Washington’s policy towards Damascus, including the removal of sanctions, the withdrawal of troops from the country, and the restoration of normal diplomatic relations, ultimately futile. did. There are similar problems for American negotiators. Syrian authorities did not provide meaningful information about the fate and whereabouts of Thaïs and others.

In his first public comment on the effort, Kash Patel, who attended the meeting as a senior White House aide, said, “Success has taken Americans home and we didn’t get there. “.

White House Approved October meetingBut I didn’t say much about it. Interviews with people familiar with the Associated Press’s recent talks revealed new details. Some spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the problem.

AP also learned about the US attempt to build goodwill with Syria long before the talks took place. Patel explained how an unidentified US ally in the region helped President Bashar Assad’s wife with cancer treatment.

The details shed light on sensitive and often secretive efforts to release the hostages held by US adversaries. This process has been a remarkable success for Trump, but it has also been a dead end. How aggressively the new Biden administration will strive to free Thaïs and other Americans around the world, especially when negotiating demands clash with the White House’s broader foreign policy goals. I don’t know.

The August meeting in Damascus represented the highest level of talks between the United States and the Assad government in years. It was extraordinary given the hostility between the two countries, and because the Syrian government had never held Tyria or admitted that he knew nothing about his whereabouts.

But that moment offered some promises. Trump had already shown a willingness to withdraw US troops from Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East. He made the restoration of hostages a top priority in foreign policy and celebrated his release by inviting released detainees to the White House.

A few months after the Damascus talks, when Thaïs’s name resurfaced in the news, Trump wrote to his parents in Houston that he would “never stop” working to release his son. My mother, Debra, told AP. But when Trump resigned on January 20, the fate of Thaïs is unknown, and to this day it is. Former Marines reported to the Washington Post, McClutch newspapers, CBS, and other media outlets.

The Biden administration has also promised to prioritize the recovery of hostages. But it also seems less likely to accept the situation Damascus raised last summer to call on the Syrian government for human rights abuses and continue the dialogue.

Tice has been an important part of public and political consciousness since it disappeared in August 2012 at a checkpoint in the disputed area west of Damascus. When other reporters decided it was too dangerous, he stepped deep into the country and disappeared shortly before he left.

video Released a few weeks later He was embraced by the blindfolded and armed men and said, “Oh, Jesus.” He hasn’t contacted me since then. US authorities are operating under the assumption that he is alive. Syria has never admitted to holding him.

Efforts to secure his release are complicated by lack of diplomatic relations and the conflict in Syria. In Syria, the United States maintains an army of about 900 people in the eastern part of the country to prevent the resurrection of Islamic State groups.

“My assumption is that he is alive and waiting for me to pick him up,” he said at a meeting with Patel as a special US presidential envoy for hostage issues under Trump. Roger Kirstens, a former Army Special Forces officer who attended, said. It was kept in that position by Biden.

At the time of the meeting, Patel, after serving as an aide to the House Intelligence Committee, was a senior anti-terrorism adviser to the White House, advancing Republican efforts to challenge the investigation into Russia’s intervention in the 2016 elections. Notorious for. He was previously a public prosecutor for the Justice Department under President Barack Obama.

According to Patel, the meeting took place over a year ago and needed to seek help in Lebanon, which is still associated with Assad.

At one point, the United States, an “allied ally in the region,” refused to provide details, he said, helping to build goodwill with the Syrian government by helping Assad’s wife treat cancer. The Syrian government announced that she had recovered from breast cancer a year before the meeting.

Men deliberately arrived as part of a small delegation, passing through Damascus, killing about 500,000 people in 10 years and seeing clear signs of a conflict expelling half of Syria’s prewar population of 23 million. I couldn’t.

In the office of Ali Mamrouk, head of Syrian intelligence, they sought information about Thaïs and Virginia psychologist Majid Kamalmazu, who disappeared in 2017.

Hostage negotiations are challenging in nature, and negotiators face demands that appear absurd, appear to be in conflict with US foreign policy, or may produce nothing when satisfied. doing.

In this case, the conditions emerged by the Syrians, explained by multiple people, would have required the United States to virtually overhaul its entire Syrian policy.

The United States closed its embassy in Damascus in 2012 and resigned as the Syrian civil war worsened. In 2019, Trump announced the withdrawal of troops from northern Syria, but military presence remains to protect the outposts of the northeastern opposition, including oil and natural gas.

According to Patel, the Syrians did not provide meaningful information about Thaïs, including evidence of life, because their demands were not met. He said he was optimistic after “legal diplomatic involvement,” but he regrets and looks back.

“I think it was probably one of my biggest mistakes under the Trump administration and I didn’t get Austin back,” Patel said.

Although diplomatic results showed that it was possible to engage Damascus, it was contracting for Tyce’s parents.

“And all the horror we’ve been told over the years if the United States realizes that there really is a government, without threatening US national security and without affecting Middle East policy. It is possible to have that dialogue without happening, “Damascus,” Tyce’s father, Mark, said in an interview.

The State Department said in a statement that taking hostages home was one of the Biden administration’s top priorities and called on Syria to release the hostages. However, the outlook for negotiations is uncertain, especially without a more substantive commitment from Damascus. It is unlikely that the government will consider Syrians called in December by global chemical oversight agencies for failing to declare a chemical weapons facility as a credible negotiator.

Biden says little about Syria, but has included Syria in the international affairs that the UN Security Council should address. In February, he approved an airstrike on Iran-backed militias in Syria.Secretary of State Antony Blinken Last week’s situation said It’s still serious in Syria.

After a journalist mistakenly tweeted that Tice had been released last November, her mother wrote a note delivered to Trump, saying she hopes the news will come true someday.

Trump responded, copying her notes and adding a message written by his own Sharpy. “Debra,” he wrote, she remembered. “I’m working hard on this. I’m looking for an answer. I want to get Austin back. I’ll never stop.”

But she said her family didn’t need a letter from the president.

“What is required here, what we are looking for here, is to see Austin at the parking lot and have the President of the United States shake hands,” she said.