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Sept. 24, 2022

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Secret contacts revive the search for Austin Tice, missing for 10 years in Syria

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WASHINGTON — At 4:30 in the morning on May 2, Debra and Marc Tice woke up in their Texas home to a phone call from the White House. President Joe Biden wanted to meet them in Washington that afternoon.

It was an opportunity they were not going to miss. Their son, Austin Tice, a journalist and former U.S. Marine, had been abducted in Syria nearly a decade ago. U.S. efforts to locate and bring him home had stalled.

So the Tices hurried to the Oval Office that day. Biden entered the meeting well-briefed, flanked by top national security staff, according to two people in attendance.

Despite ongoing back-channel negotiations with the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrians still would not seriously discuss Tice’s case. The last direct, face-to-face meeting in January 2022 had not produced another.

The president described to the family a burgeoning Syria policy he thought could provide an opening for Assad to engage on Tice, noting recent U.S. sanctions relief on entities in northern Syria. But nothing had led to a breakthrough so far.

Biden leaned back in his chair and said, “I just don’t know what else to do.”

“Well, this is a great day for me to be in your office,” Debra Tice replied.

Ten years to the day that Austin Tice disappeared, and three months since that meeting, a sprawling, multinational, and often halting effort to get him back, is showing signs of revival.

Channels of communication through third parties that went dormant for months are back on, and direct contact between the United States and Syria is quietly underway, raising hopes that a serious negotiation is possible.

Missing through three presidents

For the Tices, pleading for a president to prioritize their son’s case was a soberingly familiar affair. This was the third president they had met with since Austin was abducted at a checkpoint southwest of Damascus on August 14, 2012, while reporting on Syria’s descent into war for McClatchy, The Washington Post, and other publications.

Barack Obama’s presidency was consumed by the outbreak of the Syrian conflict in 2011, and his decision to sever diplomatic relations with Damascus, shuttering the U.S. Embassy there and Syria’s here, closed off the typical avenues a country would have to negotiate over the safe return of its citizens.

The U.S. government assessed in 2012 that the Syrians had detained Tice. In 2014, as the war raged on and a new extremist group, Islamic State, gained ground, Debra Tice spent 83 days in Damascus – matching Austin’s 83 days on the ground reporting from the country – in search of answers.

She struggled to secure meetings, but finally received a message from a high-ranking Syrian official. “I will not meet with the mother,” the message said. “Send a United States government official of appropriate title.” The note crystallized her belief that Austin’s freedom could only be secured through direct negotiations.

In 2016, U.S. officials said they had “ high confidence “ Tice was alive and in Syrian custody. But the Assad regime continued to deny any knowledge of his whereabouts or condition – a position they have held to this day.

Former President Donald Trump entertained overtures to Syria that could have significantly shifted U.S. policy in order to locate and return Tice, a position that faced opposition within his own administration. Trump’s effort failed to draw Assad into serious talks.

“I feel very strongly that, in any hostage situation, you don’t make deals with terrorists, because as soon as you have a quid pro quo, you’re setting a price on American lives,” John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser from 2018 to 2019, said in an interview.

“You may get one hostage out, but you’ve said, ‘now you’re in the bazaar,’ and you may get ten more hostages taken as a result,” said Bolton, who has become a critic of Trump after leaving the White House.

In August 2020, the U.S. special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, Roger Carstens, and a top national security official in the Trump administration, Kash Patel, traveled to Damascus for a rare meeting to discuss Tice’s case. Carstens has remained in his position under Biden.

The Syrians started with an aspirational offer. Only once the United States withdraws all of its troops from Syrian territory, relieves sanctions and normalizes diplomatic relations with Assad would they even begin to talk about U.S. interests, the Syrians said, according to three U.S. officials familiar with the matter. The Syrians still would not explicitly talk about Tice.

Debra Tice says she believes that was meant to be the opening salvo in a tough negotiation that the Americans never followed up on. “It’s important to keep in mind that was the first meeting,” she said in an interview. But officials from the Trump and Biden administrations saw that offer as suggesting the Syrians were not serious about talking.

Direct contact with Syria

The Tices had been frustrated with the Biden administration for months ahead of their May 2 visit, questioning whether the president or his team had given much thought to Austin’s case. Their Oval Office meeting came after journalists made an in-person and public appeal to Biden at the White House Correspondents’ Association annual dinner days before, on April 30, prompting the president to respond with the promise of a meeting.

In a statement on Wednesday marking the decade since Tice disappeared, Biden said the United States knew “with certainty” that the Assad regime has held Tice. “We have repeatedly asked the government of Syria to work with us so that we can bring Austin home,” Biden said. “On the tenth anniversary of his abduction, I am calling on Syria to end this.”

FBI Director Chris Wray renewed the bureau’s call for information on Tice’s whereabouts. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Carstens would “continue to engage” with the Syrian government and demanded that Damascus acknowledge his case.

Senior Biden officials say they have been going through every channel they can think of – direct and otherwise – to get the Syrians to negotiate.

Multiple U.S. backchannels to the Syrians publicly reported over the years are still in use.

Several U.S. allies in the Middle East maintain diplomatic relations with Assad, including the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Qatar, providing opportunities for the United States to engage. The Czech ambassador to Syria, Eva Filipi, has been in Damascus throughout the war and involved in the case since her government started formally representing U.S. interests there in 2012.

But the Czechs, serving a largely consular function for the Americans, can only go so far in representing the United States in talks over Tice. So the administration has increased its efforts through other avenues.

James Baker, a former secretary of State, Treasury and Commerce who met frequently with Assad’s father when he was Syria’s president, is seen as well-positioned to get through to Damascus. The Baker Institute awarded Tice its prize for excellence in leadership in April. Baker, who is from Tice’s home state of Texas, did not respond to requests for comment.

In Lebanon, Abbas Ibrahim, a top general and head of intelligence, is part of what he calls a secret negotiation between the Americans and Syrians that has intensified since Biden’s meeting with the Tice family.

“What I’m trying to do is to build a bridge of confidence between the Syrians and the Americans about this case,” Ibrahim said in an interview. “I can tell you that I’m still in the secret process, so I can’t talk anything about the process now. But I can say that things are going in the right way, because there are letters, messages, from one side to the other.”

Ibrahim met with White House and State Department officials in Washington in late May.

“They’re doing what they can, but I don’t know how far they can go with initiatives from their side,” Ibrahim added, referring to the Americans. “We’re talking here politics and Austin Tice.”

The White House conducted a Syria policy review during the first year of Biden’s presidency. The administration now says it is committed to a political settlement in Syria endorsed by the United Nations that would lead to democratic elections. But the president has not named a special envoy to Syria, an appointee whose primary responsibility in the last two administrations was to bolster the U.N. peace effort.

The administration says it will not normalize relations with the Assad regime because of its atrocities against the Syrian people in a war that left over 400,000 dead. But it also is not protesting moves by other countries in the region to renew relations with Damascus. Hundreds of U.S. troops remain in the country as part of a coalition fighting Islamic State militants.

In the weeks after the Tices’ Oval Office meeting, Syrian and U.S. officials exchanged phone calls, letters and emails, and the Syrians put questions to the Americans on what talks would look like, Ibrahim said.

“We’re trying to find ways to engage with the Syrians to receive their assistance in locating and returning Austin Tice,” Carstens said in an interview.

Debra Tice has been counting the days since her meeting with Biden, where he directed his team at least three times to secure a meeting with top Syrian officials.

“This is what needs to be done: direct engagement with the Syrian government,” she said. “There is no other channel for Austin.”

Biden administration officials met with Syrian officials to discuss Tice’s case, as well as those of other Americans believed to be detained in Syria, and have kept up communication on the issue, two senior administration officials told McClatchy.

Carstens and his team have not accused Assad himself of holding Tice, leaving the door open to the possibility that another group has him. But “we believe that Bashar al-Assad has the power to locate and return Tice,” he added.

Tice’s unique case

Privately, U.S. officials question why the Syrian government has refused to engage in serious talks over Tice for so long when there is much to be gained for Damascus.

Two senior officials described Tice’s case as unique among the dozens of hostages held around the world this past decade by gangs, criminals, pirates, terrorist groups and hostile states.

Typically, an organization that chooses to detain an American does so for the explicit purpose of bargaining. The Syrians have never expressed that interest, and the lack of any proof of life makes Tice’s case stand out.

“I’m a little bit skeptical – there’s been no proof of life,” said David Schenker, assistant secretary of State for near eastern affairs from 2019 to 2021. “The odds – it’s a long time.”

Biden administration officials maintain a sincere belief that Austin remains alive in Syrian custody.

“We proceed every day in our efforts to bring Austin home on the basis that he is alive,” Carstens said.

After Patel and Carstens returned from Damascus, Mike Pompeo, then Trump’s secretary of state, issued a statement that U.S. policy on Syria would not change.

“The fact that the secretary was not amenable to changing U.S. foreign policy in exchange for an American hostage was, I think, entirely reasonable and pretty standard U.S. policy,” Schenker said.

But Tice’s parents saw Pompeo, Bolton and others in the Trump administration undermining a president who had been willing to discuss changes to Syria policy in exchange for Austin’s return.

Debra Tice wonders whether the same thing is happening now in the Biden administration.

“Since that was a fluke meeting with this president, and Biden isn’t passionate about this situation, I have a hard time imagining that he’s following up in any way,” Debra Tice said, “that he’s asking any follow-up questions on how it’s going with the Austin Tice effort.”

But she has no doubt that Austin is alive, pointing to a video that emerged six weeks after he disappeared purporting to show him in captivity, blindfolded and reciting a prayer in Arabic. Given his value as a high-profile American captive, Syria’s experience hosting black sites for the CIA in the early 2000s, the 2014 note, Assad’s strategic patience and obfuscation, and the lack of any proof of death, she said the question doesn’t cross her mind.

Instead, what preoccupies Debra Tice is whether her son has held on to the dreams he had entering his 30s, when he ventured into Syria to tell the stories of those impacted by war, only for his life to be disrupted by his sudden capture.

“The thing that really matters is, what have these ten years been like for Austin?” she asked. “That is a more sobering meditation to me.”

At the White House, Debra Tice told Biden’s team exactly how many days it was until Austin’s birthday. He turned 31 while reporting in Syria to the percussion of shelling nearby, three days before being detained.

“Please don’t leave Austin to make that mark,” she told them, “wherever it is that he’s keeping track of time, where he has to realize that he has been left there for ten years. Please don’t let that happen.”

Aug. 11 was Austin’s 41st birthday.

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©2022 McClatchy Washington Bureau. Visit at mcclatchydc.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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