Inside secret Syria talks aimed at freeing American hostages

Full Screen
1 / 2

Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

FILE - In this Dec. 4, 2018, file photo Marc and Debra Tice, the parents of Austin Tice, who is missing in Syria, speak during a press conference, at the Press Club, in Beirut, Lebanon. Talks between U.S. and Syrian officials last summer over the fate of Austin Tice and other American hostages foundered over conditions laid out by Damascus and because of a lack of meaningful information provided on the fate of Tice. That's according to people who spoke to The Associated Press in recent weeks about the secretive talks last August. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein, File)

Last summer, two U.S. officials ventured into hostile territory for a secret high-stakes meeting with American adversaries.

The Syrian government officials they were scheduled to meet in Damascus seemed ready to discuss the fate of U.S. hostages believed held in their country, including Austin Tice, a journalist captured eight years earlier. The release of the Americans would be a boon to President Donald Trump months before the November election. A breakthrough seemed possible.

Yet the trip was ultimately fruitless, with the Syrians raising a series of demands that would have fundamentally reshaped Washington's policy toward Damascus, including the removal of sanctions, the withdrawal of troops from the country and the restoration of normal diplomatic ties. Equally as problematic for the American negotiators: Syrian officials offered no meaningful information on the fate and whereabouts of Tice and others.

“Success would have been bringing the Americans home and we never got there,” Kash Patel, who attended the meeting as a senior White House aide, said in his first public comments about the effort.

The White House acknowledged the meeting in October, but said little about it. New details have emerged in interviews The Associated Press conducted in recent weeks with people familiar with the talks, some of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

The AP has also learned about U.S. attempts to build goodwill with Syria well before the talks took place, with Patel describing how an unidentified U.S. ally in the region offered assistance with cancer treatment for the wife of President Bashar Assad.

The details shed light on the sensitive and often secretive efforts to free hostages held by U.S. adversaries, a process that yielded high-profile successes for Trump but also dead ends. It's unclear how aggressively the new Biden administration will advance the efforts to free Tice and other Americans held around the world, particularly when demands at a negotiating table clash with the White House's broader foreign policy goals.

The August meeting in Damascus represented the highest-level talks in years between the U.S. and the Assad government. It was extraordinary given the two countries’ adversarial relationship and because the Syrian government has never acknowledged holding Tice or knowing anything about his whereabouts.