Biden administration officials have asked a Lebanese general for help securing the freedom of Austin Tice, a journalist missing in Syria since 2012, as well as five other Americans held in the Middle East, U.S. officials said on Wednesday.
Abbas Ibrahim, chief of Lebanon’s General Security Directorate, met with Roger Carstens, the U.S. special envoy for hostage affairs, on May 23 “to discuss U.S. citizens who are missing or detained in Syria,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters. Ibrahim also held meetings with White House and U.S. intelligence officials.
“Of course, we talked about the case of Austin Tice,” Price said.
Ibrahim helped the Trump administration facilitate the freedom of a U.S. citizen from Syria in 2019, and was a part of a push to free Tice in 2020. But the Lebanese general told Arab media this week that work to free U.S. hostages slowed in the transition between administrations.
“There is a decision now to speed up the process,” Ibrahim recently told Lebanon’s LBC TV.
State Department officials are reluctant to discuss ongoing hostage negotiations out of fear it could compromise their efforts. But Biden administration officials indicated in recent weeks they would be willing to engage anyone and everyone that can help free Tice.
The United States does not recognize the government of Bashar Assad in Syria and severed diplomatic relations with Damascus during the civil war there.
But Carsten’s office — a hostage fusion cell coordinating efforts to free Americans unjustly detained abroad across multiple government agencies — has already been given the green light to negotiate directly with other governments with which the United States does not maintain relations, including the regime of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela.
Biden officials continue to operate on the belief that Tice is alive, despite the Syrian government declining to acknowledge his whereabouts, according to a U.S. official familiar with his case.
President Joe Biden met with Tice’s parents earlier this month to discuss the case.
“We asked President Biden to pursue sustained diplomatic engagement including transactional negotiation with the Syrian government for Austin’s safe return,” Marc and Debra Tice, Austin’s parents, said in a statement after the meeting. “Our discussion in the Oval Office took place in an atmosphere of confidence. President Biden made significant, encouraging commitments for this effort.”
A Texas native and former officer of the United States Marine Corps, Tice was 31 years old when he traveled to Syria in 2012 as a freelance journalist for McClatchy, the Washington Post and CBS News.
He was detained at a checkpoint in a suburb of Damascus. Five weeks later, a video was released showing him held by unidentified armed men. No one has claimed responsibility for his disappearance.
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