US official went to Syria seeking Americans’ release: Reports

A US media report says US officials hoped a deal with President al-Assad could free freelance journalist and a therapist.

Syria''s President Bashar al-Assad addresses the new members of parliament in Damascus, Syria in this handout released by SANA on August 12, 2020. SANA/Handout via REUTERS
The last known talks between White House and Syrian officials in Damascus took place in 2010 [File: SANA/Reuters]

A White House official travelled to Damascus earlier this year for secret meetings with the Syrian government to seek the release of at least two United States citizens, a Trump administration official was quoted as saying.

The US official who travelled to Syria was identified as Kash Patel, a deputy assistant to President Donald Trump and the top White House counterterrorism official.

“It is emblematic of how President Trump has made it a major priority to bring Americans home who have been detained overseas,” the US official, who wished to remain anonymous, told Reuters news agency on Sunday, confirming a report in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ).

WSJ, citing Trump administration officials and others familiar with the negotiations, described Patel’s trip as the first time in more than a decade that a high-level US official met with government officials of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

Syria erupted into civil war nearly a decade ago after al-Assad began a brutal crackdown on protesters calling for an end to his family’s rule in 2011.

The newspaper said US officials hoped a deal with al-Assad could free Austin Tice, a freelance journalist and former US marine officer, who disappeared while reporting in Syria in 2012, and Majd Kamalmaz, a Syrian-American therapist, who disappeared after being stopped at a Syrian government checkpoint in 2017.

One of Kamalmaz’s sons, Ibrahim, told the WSJ that he welcomed Patel’s trip as a positive step in trying to bring his father home.

“This administration is committed to our dad’s case, and we continue to speak with officials at the highest levels of the US government to bring dad home,” said Ibrahim.

Kamalmaz’s daughter, Maryam, said the family learned of Patel’s visit last week. “Praying for the best from it,” she said, speaking to The Associated Press in a series of messages. She said they believe the trip was within the past two weeks but she had no further details.

Maryam said the family still has no news about her father’s health or whereabouts. “We are hoping this meeting will bring some updates and news about him.”

According to the WSJ, Patel helped agree a deal that led to the release last week of two Americans held by Iran-backed Houthi forces in Yemen in exchange for the return of more than 200 Houthi supporters.

At least four other Americans are believed to be held by the Syrian government, the newspaper reported, but little is known about those cases.

The WSJ reported that Trump wrote al-Assad a letter in March, proposing a “direct dialogue” on Tice.

The publication added that Lebanon’s top security chief, Abbas Ibrahim, met last week at the White House with national security adviser Robert O’Brien to discuss the Americans held in Syria, according to people involved in the talks.

Having served as an important mediator between the US and Syria, Abbas helped to secure the release last year of US citizen Sam Goodwin, who was held for more than two months while visiting Syria.

Talks with Syria have not gotten very far, according to people briefed on them, the newspaper reported, saying Damascus has repeatedly demanded Washington withdraw all its forces from the country.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies