U.S. officials are negotiating with Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government for the release of a McClatchy journalist who vanished more than two years ago while reporting in Syria, according to a French newspaper report published Friday.
Paris-based Le Figaro, citing an unnamed European diplomat, reported that U.S.-Syrian negotiations on the fate of Austin Tice began weeks ago and that “an emissary representing the U.S. government” had visited the imprisoned journalist. The Assad government has never admitted publicly to holding Tice, a onetime Marine Corps captain and law school student who contributed to McClatchy, the Washington Post and other news organizations from Syria’s war zone before disappearing in mid-August 2012.
If the Figaro report is accurate, the talks would represent a rare instance of direct dialogue between the United States and Syria since the Obama administration threw its support to an anti-Assad movement that began in March 2011 and quickly spiraled into civil war. The State Department withdrew its diplomats from Damascus in 2011; the U.S. Embassy closed in 2012.
U.S. diplomats have acknowledged channels of communication with Damascus on specific issues, but the Obama administration insists it isn’t negotiating with the regime on war-related matters. The French report notes that the direct talks at the moment are limited to Tice’s case.
State Department officials didn’t respond to queries about the Figaro report. When asked about it at the midday briefing, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said she didn’t “have anything on that” but would check for an update.
Tice’s parents, Marc and Debra Tice of Houston, declined to comment on the details of the French report and directed questions to the State Department.
“The release of any hostage is a blessing and a great joy to their family,” the Tices said in a statement. “We sincerely hope everything possible is being done for the safe return of our son, and, as ever, we hope to see Austin safely home as soon as possible.”
The Figaro report said that the negotiations involve a “high-ranking American diplomat,” a Czech diplomat in Damascus and Faisal Moqdad, the Syrian deputy foreign minister. The Czech Embassy has overseen U.S. interests in Syria since the shuttering of the American Embassy.
“For a long time, the Syrian authorities denied holding him. However, in the past few weeks, an emissary representing the American government saw the journalist, a critical step towards securing his release, according to a European diplomat who visits Damascus regularly,” wrote the Figaro reporter Georges Malbrunot.
Malbrunot has personal experience with such high-stakes negotiations. He and another French reporter, Christian Chesnot, spent 124 days as hostages of an extremist group in Iraq until their release in December 2004 after clandestine French negotiations and a massive public awareness campaign that included banners across Paris.
Tice’s parents, together with the journalist advocacy group Reporters Without Borders, last month launched a renewed awareness campaign to intensify pressure on the “Syrian entity” holding their son and on the Obama administration to win his freedom. At a news conference announcing the campaign, Tice’s parents said they’ve been assured that he’s alive and not with the Islamic State militant group, though they declined to elaborate.
“We’ve come to the realization that in Austin’s case we really have two entities best placed to bring him home – one is the United States government and one is the Syrian government,” Marc Tice told reporters at the time.
Austin Tice’s satellite phone, which he used to communicate with his editors at McClatchy and The Washington Post and his family in Houston, last transmitted in the midafternoon Syrian time on Aug. 13, 2012. The Tices think their son was kidnapped the next day as he began a trip that was to take him from south of Damascus, where he’d been reporting for several weeks, to Beirut, the Lebanese capital.
The only news of him since has been a video that was posted to YouTube on Sept. 26, 2012. It shows an obviously distraught Tice, blindfolded, being led up a hillside by his captors. The video breaks off as he’s heard speaking fractured Arabic, then saying, “Jesus. Oh, Jesus.”
Since that video was posted, the Tices have traveled to Beirut twice in hopes of making contact with someone who can help them win their son’s release.