US held secret talks with Syria over missing journalist, sanctions, military presence, Syrian newspaper reports
By SARAH DADOUCH | The Washington Post | Published: October 19, 2020
BEIRUT — Two senior U.S. officials visited Damascus in August for secret talks about the fate of missing American journalist and Marine veteran Austin Tice, sanctions and the U.S. military presence in Syria, in rare high-level negotiations, according to a newspaper aligned with the Syrian government.
According to the report in Al Watan newspaper, U.S. Ambassador Roger Carstens, an envoy for hostage affairs, and Kash Patel, a top White House counterterrorism adviser, met with Ali Mamlouk, the head of Syria's intelligence agency, in his office in Damascus.
The visit, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, comes as the White House has been pressing Syria to release Tice, a freelance journalist abducted in Syria in 2012 and believed to be held there by the Syrian government or allied forces.
Citing unnamed sources, Al Watan said the trip was not the first visit by high-level U.S. diplomats and that three similar visits to Damascus have taken place in past years. The newspaper stressed that, during the August visit, the Syrian government refused to discuss "kidnapped" Americans and sanctions until effective talks on U.S. withdrawal from Syria were underway.
U.S. troops have been present in areas of northeast Syria held by the U.S.-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces as well as in eastern Syria where the United States has a military base. Over the past few months, clashes has occurred in the northeast between U.S. troops and Russian troops, which back Syrian President Bashar Assad.
A report by Russian-operated Sputnik last week said a new U.S. military base is being built in northeast Syria, sparking anger in Damascus. The U.S.-led coalition has said it is not building any new bases.
On Friday, the head of Lebanon's general security directorate, Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, met with U.S. hostage envoy Robert O'Brien in Washington, sources said. He was expected to raise the cases of Tice and Majd Kamalmaz, a psychotherapist from Arlington, Va., who was arrested shortly after he arrived in Damascus in 2017 to visit relatives.
Tice's parents, Marc and Debra Tice, welcomed the reports of discussions between U.S. and Syrian officials. "For years we have pushed for engagement between the US and Syrian governments to help bring our son safely home, so we hope recent reports are accurate. We are deeply grateful to everyone working for Austin's safe return, and his continued absence shows there is more to be done," the Tices said in a statement Monday.
In March, President Donald Trump said he was "working very hard with Syria" to free Tice and urged Damascus to work with the United States. "If you think about what we've done, we've gotten rid of the ISIS caliphate in Syria. We've done a lot for Syria," he said. "So it would be very much appreciated if they would let Austin Tice out. Immediately."
The Washington Post's Carol Morello in Washington and Louisa Loveluck in Baghdad contributed to this report.