After 10 years of disappearance in Syria, freedom is out of reach for the American journalist

BEIRUT, Lebanon – Ten years after the disappearance of American journalist Austin Tice in Syria, as the country descended into a brutal civil war, and President Bashar al-Assad’s government believed to be in custody ever since, his release remains elusive.

While one employer says efforts to secure his freedom are gaining momentum, his family remains unconvinced that the Biden administration is doing enough to advance the Syrian government, in part as a result of diplomatic complications arising from the two countries’ lack of formal relations. United States and Syria.

McClatchy, the US newspaper for which the journalist worked, said, among other things, this week that multinational efforts to free Mr. Tice were showing signs of recovery and that there were direct contacts between the US and Syrian governments.

A McClatchy spokeswoman said Monday that the progress was the culmination of intense activism by the Biden administration and the press industry that led to the 10th anniversary of Mr. Tice’s disappearance. But the company’s CEO, Tony Hunter, said recently that there hasn’t been much movement on the issue since May.

“For McClatchy, this anniversary was an opportunity to highlight Austin’s decade-long ordeal,” spokeswoman Susan Fairy said. “In tandem, to highlight the inaction of three departments for ten years.”

Last week, Debra and Mark Tice, parents of Mr. Tice, who disappeared in August 2012 outside of Damascus, Syria, wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Post in which they referenced family weddings, graduations and other family get-togethers with their son. Missed in 10 years of captivity, President Biden urged an intensified diplomatic effort to release him.

Tice’s family did not respond to requests for an interview.

The United States has been engaged “on a large scale” to return Mr. Tice to the United States, including by direct contact with Syrian officials and working through third parties, according to a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue. However, the official said, the Syrian government has not yet agreed to discuss Mr. Tice’s case.

Last week, Biden said in a statement that his administration has repeatedly asked the Syrian government to work with them to bring Mr. Tice home.

“On the 10th anniversary of his kidnapping, I call on Syria to end this matter and help us bring him home,” Biden said in the statement, adding that the United States was certain the journalist was being held by the Syrian government. .

Mr. Biden said his administration has no higher priority than releasing American hostages wrongfully detained abroad.

If he’s still alive, as the United States believes, then Mr. Tice, a former Marine Corps officer who has been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, will be one of the longest-running American hostages held abroad, a captivity that has spanned across three US administrations. He would have turned 41 on August 11.

Mr. Tice, who worked as a freelancer for the Washington Post, McClatchy and other outlets when he was kidnapped, had been in Syria for months, engaging with opposition rebels and writing about them as an anti-government uprising turned into a civil war. Syria has always maintained that it is not holding Mr. Tice and has no information about him.

Efforts to secure his release have been complicated by the fact that the United States has suspended diplomatic relations with Syria as a result of the Assad regime’s brutal crackdown on the opposition.

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On May 2, Mr. Tice’s parents met Mr. Biden at the White House, where he directed senior national security officials to communicate directly with the Syrian government, according to the article they wrote in the Washington Post.

Weeks after that meeting, Lebanon’s security chief, Abbas Ibrahim, came to Washington and met with officials from the Biden administration and the CIA, according to Nizar Zakka, president of Hostage Aid Worldwide. He said his organization has been helping Mr. Ibrahim and the United States for the past two years in finding evidence about Mr. Tice.

Mr Zakka said the aim of the meeting was to find a way to make progress with the Syrians, who had always been evasive when asked about Mr. Tice.

Mr. Ibrahim is credited with negotiating the release of several Westerners from the Middle East, including an American and a Canadian from Syria, as well as Mr. Zakka, a Lebanese national who has been held for four years in Iran and accused of spying for the United States. .

After meeting in Washington, Ibrahim went to Damascus and met with Syrian officials, but the meeting did not lead to anything, Mr. Zakka said.

The Tice family continues to demand direct contact between the Biden administration and the Syrian government, ignoring the State’s alleged concerns about high-level recognition of Mr. Assad.

In 2014, Ms. Tice spent nearly three months in Damascus “knocking on doors, making phone calls, and doing everything she could to find out where Austin was.” Eventually she received a message from a senior Syrian government official: “I will not meet the mother. Send a government official to the United States with an appropriate title.”

The US government has made numerous efforts over the years to secure the release of Mr. Tice, mostly under President Donald J. Trump, who has made the release of American prisoners and hostages held around the world a priority.

In 2017, the first year of the Trump administration, the White House established a back channel to communicate with the Syrian government. In February of that year, Mike Pompeo, then-CIA director, spoke on the phone with Ali Mamlouk, the head of the Syrian National Security Bureau’s intelligence service, which is under US sanctions.

The administration then sent a mediator to meet with Mr. Mamlouk and deliver an unsigned letter from the US government. Those contacts collapsed after the Syrian government carried out a chemical gas attack in opposition-held northern Syria and the United States responded with a missile strike on a Syrian air base.

In August 2018, a senior CIA official with Middle East experience met Mr. Mamlouk in Damascus and raised Mr. Tice’s case.

Two years later, high-ranking US officials, including Roger D. Carstens, the State Department’s special envoy for hostage affairs, met Mr. Mamlouk again in Damascus to try to secure the release of Mr. Tice and another US citizen, Majd. Kamalmaz, a Syrian-born psychotherapist, was taken at a checkpoint in 2017.

Nor has the Syrian government acknowledged the detention of Mr. Kamalmaz.

Months after the meeting, a US official said efforts to secure the two men’s release were in the early stages.

Reliance on such back-channels and mediators due to the lack of US diplomatic relations with Syria has made these efforts extremely complicated. The United States closed its embassy in Damascus in 2012, and in 2014 closed the Syrian embassy in Washington and suspended diplomatic relations between the two countries.

The United States has also imposed sanctions on Syrian military and political officials for human rights violations, as well as on Syrian companies and banks.

In their editorial, Mr. Tice’s parents described obstacles cited by US administrations as “excuses”. They welcomed Mr. Biden’s words of encouragement but said their son needed more after 10 years of captivity.

“He needs our government to turn the president’s words into action,” they wrote. “He should go home.”

Zulan Kanu Youngs Contribute to the preparation of reports.

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