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Senior White House official visits Syria for hostage talks

A senior White House official recently visited Damascus for secret talks with the Assad regime, marking the first time that a US official of this level has met the isolated government in Syria in more than a decade, according to Trump administration officials and others. with negotiations.

Kash Patel, Deputy Assistant to President Trump and senior White House counterterrorism official, visited Damascus earlier this year in a bid to secure the release of at least two Americans believed to be detained by President Bashar al-Assad, officials said. Officials familiar with the trip declined to say who Mr. Patel met on his trip.

The last known talks between the White House and Syrian officials in Damascus took place in 2010. The United States cut off diplomatic relations with Syria in 2012 to protest Mr. Assad’s brutal crackdown on protesters calling for the end of his diet.

U.S. officials hope a deal with Mr. Assad would lead to the freedom of Austin Tice, a freelance journalist and former Navy officer who disappeared while reporting in Syria in 2012, and Majd Kamalmaz, a therapist Syrian American who disappeared after being arrested at a Syrian government checkpoint in 2017. At least four other Americans are believed to be held by the Syrian government, but little is known about these cases.

Ibrahim Kamalmaz, one of Mr. Kamalmaz’s sons, hailed Mr. Patel’s trip as a positive step in trying to bring his father home.

Majd Kamalmaz, an American aid worker detained at a checkpoint in Damascus, Syria, in 2017.


Photo:

MARYAM KAMALMAZ

“This administration is engaged in our father’s case, and we continue to speak with officials at the highest level of the US government to bring Dad home,” he said Sunday.

A State Department spokeswoman declined to comment. White House officials did not respond to requests for comment. The Syrian mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the visit.

The Trump and Obama administrations have worked to isolate Mr. Assad, who has sought help from Russia and Iran in quelling popular protests and armed resistance that has unsuccessfully sought to force him out of power. The almost decadalong war fractured the country and left almost half a million dead. Earlier this year, the Trump administration imposed new punitive economic sanctions on Syria, which further marginalized the Assad regime.

In March, Mr. Trump wrote Mr. Assad a private letter proposing a “direct dialogue” about Mr. Tice, and administration officials tried various ways to negotiate a deal.

Lebanese security chief Abbas Ibrahim last week met Robert O’Brien, the White House’s national security adviser, at the White House to discuss Americans being held in Syria, according to people involved in the talks.

Mr. Ibrahim, head of Lebanon’s General Security Agency, served as a key mediator between the United States and Syria. Last year he helped secure the release of Sam Goodwin, an American traveler detained for more than two months while visiting Syria as part of an attempt to visit every country in the world.

Mr. Trump has bragged in recent months about his administration’s efforts at campaign rallies, and the Republican convention featured a video of Mr. Trump’s meeting with Americans held in India, Iran, Syria, Turkey and Venezuela.

Last week, Mr Patel helped negotiate a deal that led to the release of two Americans held by Iranian-backed Houthi forces in Yemen in return for the return of more than 200 Houthi loyalists stranded outside of the fractured nation of the Middle East.

The Trump administration is also trying to pressure Venezuela to release six oil executives detained since 2017. Two more Americans were arrested in May after entering Venezuela to participate in an attempted coup aimed at to overthrow President Nicolas Maduro.

The families of Mr. Tice and Mr. Kamalmaz believe the two men are alive, but Syrian officials have not offered definitive proof.

Left to right, Senator Lindsey Graham (R., SC), White House Social Media Director Dan Scavino and Senior National Security Council Counterterrorism Director Kash Patel at the White House on 27 October 2019.


Photo:

Andrew Harnik / Associated Press

Discussions with the Assad regime did not go very far, according to people briefed on the negotiations.

The Assad regime has repeatedly called for the United States to withdraw all its forces from Syria. Several hundred US forces are helping protect oil fields in the northeastern part of the country as part of an effort to prevent Islamic State from regaining a foothold in the country.

Concerns over the fate of the two men were heightened by the death of Layla Shweikani, a 26-year-old girl from Illinois who, according to human rights groups, was detained, tortured and executed by the Assad regime in 2016 after working as an activist and aid worker. in Syria.

Mr. Trump took personal interest in trying to secure Mr. Tice’s freedom, raising his case at a press conference in March and issuing a statement on the eighth anniversary of his disappearance.

Write to Dion Nissenbaum at dion.nissenbaum@wsj.com and Jared Malsin at jared.malsin@wsj.com

Corrections and amplifications
Freelance journalist Austin Tice went missing in Syria in 2012. A photo caption in an earlier version of this article incorrectly read 2014. (Corrected October 18)

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