US envoy urges Iran and Russia to help free Marine-turned-journalist taken captive in Syria
By CAROL MORELLO | The Washington Post | Published: November 14, 2018
The U.S. envoy for hostage affairs Tuesday called on Iran and Russia to use their influence in Syria to help free Austin Tice, an American freelance journalist who was taken captive there six years ago and is believed to be alive.
Robert O'Brien, the point man trying to secure the release of about 20 Americans held unjustly around the world, said some countries are being "very helpful" in trying to get Tice freed. Asked which countries were not being helpful, he replied: "The Iranians are not helpful. And they're heavily involved in Syria."
Later, he added, "If Iran wants better relations with the United States, it should use its influence in Syria to help us return Austin home."
O'Brien sounded a similar note when asked about Russia, which provides military support to the Syrian government.
"One of the things that both Russia and the United States should agree on is that innocent Americans, or innocent Russians, for that matter, should not be held hostage and should not be held against their will," he said. "We continue to call on the Russians to exert whatever influence they can in Syria to bring Austin home."
The status of U.S. efforts to free citizens imprisoned overseas as geopolitical pawns is a closely held secret. O'Brien, who was appointed to the job in July, made rare public remarks during an event at the National Press Club focused on raising reward money for information on Tice, who is now 37.
The former Marine and Georgetown University law student was in Syria reporting on the beginnings of the civil war when he was taken prisoner in August 2012. His stories focusing on the war's impact on civilians appeared in The Washington Post and McClatchy Newspapers.
About five weeks after Tice vanished, a proof-of-life video turned up in which Tice said repeatedly, "Oh, Jesus. Oh, Jesus," as armed men led him blindfolded down a rocky mountainside. There was no message apart from the headline: "Austin Tice is alive." He has not been heard from since.
Despite the passage of years, U.S. officials and Tice's parents, Marc Tice and Debra Tice, are convinced he is still alive.
"Austin is a strong, fit young man," O'Brien said. We have every reason to believe that he is alive. We believe that he's being held captive in Syria."
O'Brien said that Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has asked her fellow ambassadors for help freeing Tice. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, U.S. national security adviser, have both met with Tice's parents.
In April, the FBI offered a $1 million reward for information leading to Tice's return. The National Press Club and Reporters Without Borders are spearheading a campaign to double the reward through a project called Night Out for Austin Tice. Restaurants in the Washington area are being encouraged to donate a share of their proceeds May 2, the evening before World Press Freedom Day. The organizers plan eventually to take the campaign nationwide.
Tice's parents have made several trips to the Middle East hoping to bring their son home. Marc Tice said they are about to leave on their seventh or eighth trip to Beirut — at this point, they are unsure how many trips they've made to advocate for their son. The trips are intended to reach out to those who are holding their son captive.
"Every time we go, our greatest desire to is to bring Austin home," his father said. "We know Austin longs to walk free. Two thousand, two hundred and eighty-two days. Austin urgently needs to be free. Maybe soon."