Bringing U.S. citizens who have been kidnapped overseas back home has been a central plank of Donald Trump’s foreign policy, and the most visible totem of his election promise to bring America back from its costly adventures around the world. It’s a strategy that has had some success, and one that he’s repeatedly returned to in the final months of his campaign for reelection.
On October 18, the Wall Street Journal reported that Kash Patel, a deputy assistant to Trump and the most senior counterterrorism official at the White House, traveled to Damascus earlier this year for talks on how to get American hostages, most notably the missing journalist Austin Tice, back home. Those talks were followed, according to the same article, by a similar conversation in Washington in mid-October between Lebanon’s security chief Abbas Ibrahim, who has helped retrieve Americans from Syrian prisons before, and national security adviser Robert O’Brien.
Such a flurry of activity could only have happened on the say-so of Trump, who clearly believes that that going the extra mile to bringing missing Americans home is popular with voters and the media. He has invited freed hostages, like Egyptian American aid worker Aya Hijazi, to the White House for photo ops, and has included the families of Americans killed overseas in campaign events. On the closing night of the Republican National convention in August, the parents of Kayla Mueller, the American humanitarian worker held hostage, brutalized, and likely murdered by the Islamic State in Syria, were given center stage as they announced their support for the president.
Following Trump’s success in getting three Americans back from North Korea in 2018, in October the administration secured the release of two other Americans, a businessman and a humanitarian worker, who were being held in Yemen by Houthis supportive of Iran. The latter deal was personally overseen by Patel; in return, according to press reports, he facilitated the release of nearly 250 Houthi fighters stranded in neighboring Oman. It hasn’t always worked out so well. Despite extensive lobbying by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo over the plight of Moustafa Kassem, an Egyptian American who was held for six years in Sisi’s Egypt for alleged political sympathies, died in this past January after a long hunger strike.
Tice is one of two U.S. citizens known to be detained in Syria, the other being Majd Kamalmaz, a Syrian aid worker who was taken in 2017. Tice, however, remains the Trump administration’s biggest prize. The FBI has offered a $1 million reward for information leading to his recovery and return; no such reward is listed for Kamalmaz.
The Tice case illuminates fascinating fractures within the uneasy alliance of neoconservative ideologues and old-fashioned Trumpist conservatives who make up the current U.S. administration. The imperative to free hostages held overseas is a recurrent theme of former national security adviser John Bolton’s recent memoir “The Room Where It Happened,”to Bolton and Pompeo’s growing concern. They worried about the legitimacy such deal-making affords their authoritarian adversaries — and the possible quid pro quo.
Pompeo and Bolton “didn’t like the idea” of Pompeo going to Pyongyang, Bolton writes about the 2018 hostage releases, “but freeing the hostages was sufficiently important that we decided to swallow it.” When Marine One arrived back on American soil, nearly overflying the illuminated Washington Monument on its way, Trump — who greeted Pompeo and the hostages — was on “cloud nine,” reports Bolton, “because this was a success even the hostile media could not diminish.”
Trump seems happy to talk to anyone who might help bring Americans home — regardless of the consequences.
The following year brought a fresh push on behalf of Americans in Syria. Trump, a natural demagogue who enjoys jaw-jawing and deal-making mano a mano with others of the same stripe, clearly wanted to strike a bargain with President Bashar al-Assad and his military regime, but was frustrated by Bolton and Pompeo in doing so. “Negotiations about our role in Syria were complicated by Trump’s constant desire to call Assad on US hostages, which Pompeo and I thought undesirable,” writes Bolton, who was ousted by Trump last September.
Just this week, Tice’s mother Debra blamed Pompeo for getting in the way of U.S. efforts to secure her son’s release. “Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is undermining the President’s crucial outreach, refusing any form of direct diplomatic engagement with the Syrian government,” she said in a statement on Monday. Pompeo was happy to engage with the Syrians, but balked at using formal diplomatic channels. In the early days of the Trump administration, reported Adam Goldman in the New York Times, Pompeo spoke on the phone with Ali Mamlouk, then the powerful head of Syria’s National Security Bureau and a trusted adviser to Assad. The calls were the highest-level contact between the two governments for years. But whereas Pompeo preferred using a back channel, presumably to avoid giving the Syrian government the legitimacy it wants, Trump seems happy to talk to anyone who might help bring Americans home — regardless of the consequences.
Now, with Bolton gone and Trump in full-tilt election mode, Trump’s ambition to bring Tice home is being given free rein. Dozens of people, myself included, have been chipping away for years at the story of what happened to Tice. While many questions remain, what’s certain is that the prospects for his return are slim.
More than eight years after he disappeared, the fate of Austin Tice is more murky and politically pertinent than ever. On May 23, 2012, this intrepid 30-year-old former Marine Corps captain, fired by enthusiasm for the Arab Spring and burnishing an ambition to be a photojournalist, slipped under a fence into northern Syria.
Tice jumped from one ragtag rebel militia to another and managed bylines in no less than the Washington Post and McClatchy until he arrived in the suburbs of Damascus, where he promptly disappeared on August 13. Most Syria-watchers surmise that he fell into the hands of Syrian government forces.
In the years that followed, concerns about Tice became a cause célèbre among journalism and veteran organizations. Tice’s face appeared on billboards and ads: In 2015, Reporters Without Borders partnered with ad agency J. Walter Thompson on a public awareness campaign to put pressure on the U.S administration to bring Tice back home. The Obama administration, however, seemed to be dragging its heels. After the grisly execution of American journalists and aid workers by ISIS in 2014, and amid a general perception that little was done to get them out, new moves were made to help families deal with the plight of missing loved ones and help get them back, including the opening of an office of Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs. But nothing much changed.
The best evidence we have about Tice remains a 47-second video that popped onto the internet six weeks after he went missing. It shows Tice on a mountainside, blindfolded and being taunted by armed men. The production value and neatly laundered, Afghan-style clothes of the armed men seemed out of kilter, as if those who made it were engaged in a deliberate parody. Most reporters who watched it smelled a rat; since the Syrian government’s central propaganda claim was that it was battling Al Qaeda, its agents had every reason to show an American in jihadi captivity. At the time, I called one of the young rebels who’d worked to get Tice — and later myself — into the country a few months earlier. “Faked” was his verdict. “Now we know he is with the regime.”
Over the next years, in a long investigation for Vanity Fair and then for my book “Hunting Season,” I continued scraping away at the mystery of who was lying about Tice. Most reports assume that he was detained at a checkpoint near Darraya, the Damascus suburb where he last stayed, but that was never my information. From the 29-year-old IT graduate who’d acted as his translator in Darayya, and from a report prepared for the Tice family by rebels there, I learned that Tice had left with the same rebel driver who’d brought him there.
The more people I spoke to, the fuzzier the story became.
Much later, however, the rebels told me that they’d received information that the driver’s son had been kidnapped by the Syrian Mukhabarat, and that “the regime offered to release his son in exchange for Austin.” The more people I spoke to, the fuzzier the story became, but what was clear from their begrudging admission suggested that Tice hadn’t been kidnapped by the regime per se — he’d been traded by a few of the rebels he trusted, either for money or to get some of their own people back. Someone was continuing to take an interest in his case; a Syrian American friend of Tice’s sent him a Facebook message on August 12, 2012, and it was marked as read on October 29 the following year, according to a screenshot of the chat.
It was in the course of looking for Tice that I found another unfortunate young American languishing, incommunicado in a Damascus prison. Starting from the same Turkish border city of Antakya just months after Tice, Kevin Dawes had launched himself into Syria in October and had promptly been arrested by Syrian government forces. A few months after I published a story about him for GQ’s U.K. edition, he was released. One irony of the case is that Dawes had gone to Syria, in part, in an ill-advised effort to bring back information about Tice. He wasn’t the only one.
In 2016, according to Adam Goldman of the Times, “the American intelligence community concluded with moderate to high confidence in a secret analysis that Mr. Tice was alive, based partly on a report that he had been seen at a hospital in Damascus, being treated for dehydration.” But moderate-to-high confidence is not necessarily more than a rumor. One former Syrian official who was part of a high-level American initiative to bring Tice home and then worked closely with the Tice family told me that their team tried to chase down the Damascus hospital story but found nothing to support it. In any case, it sounded far-fetched, the former official said; alleged hospital sightings are common in such cases. After all their years of looking, they found no real proof that Tice was alive.
In November 2018, O’Brien, then the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, said he had “every reason to believe” that Tice was still alive. Everyone else should remain skeptical. Tice’s parents appear to have seen no proof that he is alive, other than a combination of assurances and suggestions from the U.S. government. In his most recent televised statement on Tice, in March, Trump himself admitted that he has no evidence that the journalist remains alive.
It’s not only Trump, of course, who might see political advantage in resolving the whereabouts of Tice. On October 19, following the report in the Wall Street Journal, the pro-government Syrian paper Al-Watan reported that two high-ranking American officials visited the Syrian capital in an effort to “win Damascus’s cooperation with Washington” in the case of Americans missing in Syria, chief among them Tice. At issue on the Syrian side were punishing U.S. sanctions on the Syrian government imposed earlier this year, and the continued presence of American soldiers in the northeast of the country.
But it wasn’t clear that the Syrians had anything to offer in return. “Information suggests that his [Tice’s] disappearance was due to the struggle of extremist groups that had recently emerged in Eastern Ghouta,” the article continued. Every word of it, noted a former contractor for the Syrian government who is still inside the country, must have been approved by the presidential palace. “They are setting the ground to say that he is dead and we recovered the body.”
Debra Tice repeated in her statement on Monday Trump’s previous claim that we “will not rest until we bring Austin home.” For the sake of Tice’s family, let’s hope the American president is not promising more than he can deliver.