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Report: WH official went to Syria about freeing Austin Tice, other US hostages

Freelance journalist Austin Tice went missing in Syria in 2012 and has not been heard from since. (Fort Worth Star-Telegram/TNS)
October 19, 2020

A White House official visited the Syrian capital of Damascus this year to start secretive talks with the Syrian government for the release of at least two Americans missing in Syria, including Austin Tice, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Kash Patel, a deputy assistant to President Donald Trump and the top White House counterterrorism official, went to Syria earlier this year, according to Trump administration officials who spoke with the Wall Street Journal. U.S. officials are reportedly hoping a deal with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad will see Tice, a freelance journalist and former Marine officer missing in Syria since 2012, released.

Officials who spoke with the Wall Street Journal said the effort was also aimed at securing the release of Majd Kamalmaz, a Syrian-American therapist who went missing after being stopped at a Syrian government checkpoint in 2017. The officials said at least four other Americans are believed to be held by the Syrian government, but few details are known about their cases.

The officials did not identify the Syrian government officials Patel met with during his visit.

The last known talks between the U.S. and Syrian government took place in 2010. In 2012, the U.S. government cut off diplomatic ties with the Assad government, in response to the Syrian leader’s harsh crackdown on anti-regime protests. Syria has been in a state of civil war since 2011.

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The officials who spoke with the Wall Street Journal have said the latest talks with the Assad regime have not gone very far and the Assad regime has repeatedly called for the U.S. to withdraw its forces from Syria. Around 500 U.S. troops remain in the country, guarding oil fields and assisting Kurdish allied forces fighting with ISIS.

Last week the Patel helped secure the release of two American hostages and the remains of a third hostage held by the Iran-backed Houthi forces in Yemen. The two living Americans and the remains of the third were released in exchange for the release of more than 200 Houthi militants held captive by a Saudi Arabian-led coalition fighting with the Houthi’s in Yemen.

Patel’s latest reported effort to secure the release of American captives held abroad comes after the Trump administration has reportedly tried a variety of methods to win Tice’s release. In March, Trump issued a letter to Assad calling for a “direct dialogue” about Tice’s disappearance. Tice, who went to Syria in 2012, went missing in August of that year as he was finishing some of his final assignments in the country. He reportedly got into a car in the Damascus suburb of Darayya and was detained at a checkpoint. Five weeks later, a video was released showing him being held by unidentified captors.

In February, Austin’s mother Debra Tice said she felt “reasonably hopeful” her son would be released and said the Trump administration is “pressing it much more diligently than the previous administration,” but that she believes someone or something is slowing progress on Tice’s release.

Ibrahim Kamalmaz, one of Majd Kamalmaz’s sons welcomed Patel’s reported efforts to win his father’s release.

“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 told the Wall Street Journal.

U.S. State Department officials have declined Wall Street Journal requests for comment on the reported efforts to free the Americans missing in Syria.