The State Department confirmed that Washington is talking with the government of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad about missing American journalist Austin Tice, a development raising hopes he is alive and could be brought home in the near future.
“We have been in periodic, direct contact with Syrian government officials on consular issues, including the case of Austin Tice,” a State Department official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Since closing its embassy in Syria in 2012, the United States has relied on the Czech Republic to carry out consular work on its behalf. Czech diplomats, the official said, have been involved in getting information on the welfare and whereabouts of American citizens in Syria, including Tice. “For privacy and security reasons, we cannot provide additional details,” the official said.
A former Marine, Tice went missing in 2012 when he was kidnapped by unidentified forces south of Damascus. Though it is unclear exactly who is holding Tice, many observers have speculated that he has been imprisoned by the Syrian government, a charge Damascus denies. Except for a brief YouTube clip published shortly after his capture, Tice hasn’t been heard from in several years.
The contact between Damascus and Washington with regard to Tice’s case was first reported by Le Figaro, and that report included an explosive detail: That a U.S. emissary had recently seen Tice. The State Department official, however, denied that aspect of the Figaro story.
Reuters carried a confirmation of the Figaro story Wednesday.
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 Assad. The State Department tried to quickly walk back those comments, and said that the United States remained committed to ensuring Assad’s departure from power. Still, many observers believe the administration is willing to at least consider a deal that keeps the Assad regime, or elements from it, in power.
Though confirmation that Washington and Damascus are in contact about Tice does not verify that he is in fact being held by the Assad regime, the talks represent a rare bit of good news about American hostages being held inside Syria. James Foley and Steven Sotloff, two other U.S. journalists who went missing in Syria in recent years, were murdered by Islamic State militants in 2014. Kayla Mueller, an American aid worker kidnapped by the Islamic State, died earlier this year in what the militant group claimed was a Jordanian airstrike.
Tice is the last known American journalist being held in Syria.