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Report: Washington Is Negotiating for Missing American Journalist

The American journalist Austin Tice has been missing in Syria since 2012. No one seems to know the identity of his captors, and except for a brief YouTube clip after his capture at the hands of unidentified forces, he hasn’t been heard from. Now comes an explosive report from French daily Le Figaro that U.S. ...

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The American journalist Austin Tice has been missing in Syria since 2012. No one seems to know the identity of his captors, and except for a brief YouTube clip after his capture at the hands of unidentified forces, he hasn’t been heard from. Now comes an explosive report from French daily Le Figaro that U.S. officials are negotiating with the Syrian government for his release.

Many observers had speculated that Tice was being held by the Assad regime, and the news that the U.S. government may be able to formally negotiate to win his release could be a rare bit of good news involving American journalists captured in Syria. The Assad government is brutal, but it has at least shown a willingness to talk to foreign governments; the Islamic State has brutally killed every American it has gotten its hands on. James Foley and Steven Sotloff, two other U.S. journalists who went missing in Syria in recent years, were murdered by the militants last year. Another missing American, Kayla Mueller, died under mysterious circumstances earlier this year.

Citing a European diplomat who regularly visits Damascus, Le Figaro reports that the United States is working through Czech diplomats in the Syrian capital to secure his release via Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad. Since the closure of the American Embassy in Damascus in 2012, the Czechs have represented U.S. interests there.

According to Le Figaro, an emissary of the U.S. government has in recent weeks seen Tice. The paper adds that a high-ranking American diplomat is involved in the talks and has spoken with Mekdad on the issue via telephone. The State Department has so far not commented on the report.

Tice, a freelance writer and former captain in the U.S. Marine Corps, is the last American journalist being held in Syria. He was captured south of Damascus in 2012 and there has been near-total silence about Tice’s fate ever since.

The Tice family reacted cautiously to the Figaro report. “The release of any hostage is a blessing and a great joy to their family,” the Tice family said in a statement posted on a website devoted to their son. “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.”

In recent weeks, the U.S. government has appeared to soften its stance toward the Assad regime, with Secretary of State John Kerry saying that the United States will eventually have to negotiate with Bashar al-Assad. Though the State Department quickly walked back those comments and said that the United States remains committed to ensuring Assad’s departure from power, observers have seen his statement as a possible opening toward the regime.

The release of Tice — if indeed he is being held by Damascus — is one of the few bargaining chips the Assad regime has in its hands to push Washington further toward its camp.

Correction, March 25, 2015: James Foley and Steven Sotloff went missing in Syria in 2012 and 2013, respectively, and were murdered by the Islamic State last year. A previous version of this story said the two journalists had gone missing in 2014.

Christy Wilcox/AFP/GettyImages

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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