The White House is trying to negotiate hostage releases from Syria, but regional officials don't think Assad will take the talks seriously
- The White House held secret talks with the Syrian government earlier this year in an attempt to discuss the fate of two American hostages, the therapist Majd Kamalmaz and journalist Austin Tice.
- But regional security officials and diplomats are skeptical the Syrians will even enter serious negotiations with the US in the first place.
- I would know: in the years after Tice's disappearance I was occasionally involved in efforts to contact the Syrian government and hopefully secure his release. The Syrians never gave me anything.
- Sources told Insider that if Syria were willing to return Tice and Kalmamaz — if they are even alive — it would likely ask the US to withdraw its troops from the country, relieve sanctions, and even help it make peace with Israel.
- A European diplomat said that Syria could confuse erratic US behavior in the Middle East for a chance to get concessions from the White House. "Bashar sees Trump as someone stupid who wants to leave Syria," they said.
The Trump administration secretly dispatched senior officials to Syria earlier this year in an attempt to discuss the fate of two American hostages, but regional security officials and diplomats are skeptical the Syrians will enter serious negotiations.
The meeting between Trump's top counterterrorism advisor, Kash Patel, and senior Syrian officials in Damascus —first reported by The Wall Street Journal on Sunday — was the first direct, high-level contact between the US and Syria in a decade.
The US has repeatedly bombed Syria, imposed sanctions and arms embargoes against it, and has troops occupying parts of it.
One of the hostages in Syria is Majd Kamalmaz, a Syrian-American therapist who disappeared at a Syrian government checkpoint in 2017, according to The Journal.
Tice, who worked for news outlets like McClatchy Newspapers and The Washington Post, is believed to have been arrested at a Syrian regime checkpoint.
As a correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers covering Syria in the years that followed his disappearance, I was occasionally involved in efforts to make contact with the Syrian government and its intelligence services to learn more about Tice's fate and, ideally, negotiate his release.
But over time, with only rumors and a never-ending stream of grifters trying to sell fabricated information to show for it, it became clear that the Syrian regime would not even confirm Tice's arrest, let alone provided proof of life without the involvement of senior US officials.
The White House would likely run into the same problems.
The Journal's report of the White House trip to Damascus came days after Abbas Ibrahim, Lebanon's most powerful security chief, visited Washington, DC, for the first time to meet with senior US officials responsible for negotiating hostage releases.
According to a European diplomat in Beirut, Ibrahim is attempting to use his close relationship with Syrian officials to make himself invaluable to the US to avoid scrutiny of his own country.
The diplomat asked not to be named because they lack official permission to speak to the press, but their identity is known to Insider.
A senior Lebanese political figure echoed the diplomat's remarks about Ibrahim in a separate conversation with Insider, and added that hostage negotiations between the White House and Syria would likely involve Syria asking the US to withdraw troops.
This person also asked not to be named, citing the sensitive nature of the topic, but their identity is known to Insider.
"Can there be a deal with Syria and the Americans? I know the Syrians had Austin Tice but there's been nothing on him for all these years," the Lebanese political figure said.
"If he's alive, the Syrians will want to trade him for the American troops leaving [northeastern] Syria and a dropping of sanctions. One journalist won't be enough for this, so any talks would be very complex."
The European diplomat also noted that that some Middle East factions might be confusing erratic US behavior in the region for a chance to get concessions from the White House.
Referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and US President Donald Trump, the diplomat said: "Bashar sees Trump as someone stupid who wants to leave Syria," describing conversations they have had with Lebanese and Syrian officials close to Assad.
"He [Assad] also knows that Trump has an election and wants hostages released for the voters," the diplomat said. "They sent senior White House aides to Damascus to talk!"
"But besides the question of whether he actually has these two people, who might have died in custody ... I'm not sure there would be real sanctions relief or the departure of US forces from the coalition against ISIS. And I am not sure the Syrians will be willing to talk at all unless troops leaving and sanctions lifted are part of the plan."
Analysts who closely track Damascus and regime media said that it was clear the Syrians were refusing to discuss the hostages until there was a withdrawal agreement.;
—Danny Makki (@Dannymakkisyria) October 19, 2020
—Danny Makki (@Dannymakkisyria) October 19, 2020
This raises an additional question: if the release of Tice and Kamalmaz will require lifting sanctions and withdrawing US troops from Syrian territory, what can the Assad regime offer in addition to the apparent hostages?
A former Israeli intelligence official, who works as reservist for the Israel Defense Forces, said Assad would likely adopt the tactics often used by Hezbollah in its negotiations with Israel over hostages: Refuse to concede anything for free.
"Whenever Hezbollah took some of our guys, they'd never offer proof of life or anything on their condition," said the official, who worked on a prisoner-swap deal between Hezbollah and Israel in 2008. This source asked not to be named because they do not have permission to speak to the media, but their identity is known to Insider.
"They make you pay for everything," the official said of Hezbollah. "You want to find out their condition? Alive or dead, you pay the full price for them. I expect Bashar will do the same here. You want information on this Austin Tice? Leave Syria and I'll tell you what we know."
"And the only thing Bashar can offer worth leaving Syria and dropping the sanctions for would be to resolve the Golan Heights, make peace with Israel, kick out the Iranians, and crack down on Hezbollah," said the Israel official.
"We keep hearing this rumor even here in Israel and I am sure Bashar would love to haggle or get some sanction relief, but I doubt he could deliver if he wanted to," he said. "How can he kick out the Iranians and Hezbollah? They saved his regime and are stronger than his forces."
The EU diplomat said they had heard the same rumors of some sort of region-resetting agreement being pitched, but said it sounded too complex to be realistic.
"Israel and the US aren't signing anything that doesn't manage Iran and Hebzollah," said the diplomat.
"And even if Bashar agreed to try — which I really doubt, no matter how much he wants sanction relief — Hezbollah would just kill him and replace him with Maher," they said, referring to Assad's older brother.
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