The recent activity surrounding Americans held captive in Syria is increasingly resembling a game of smoke and mirrors.
Recently it was revealed by the Wall Street Journal that President Trump sent two top officials to travel to Syria hold talks with Syrian government officials about the possible release of two US citizens believed to be held in Syria.
The move, which involved the officials visiting a top general in his office in Damascus is quite a bombshell as at a time when Idlib is ever-present in the news and Covid-19 is claiming a heavy death toll. Syria was off-limits to US officials, until now.
So what is the Trump administration attempting to pull off?
Essentially, the US, or rather the Trump administration, seeks to secure freelance journalist Austin Tice, who has been missing in Syria since 2012, and Syrian-American psychotherapist Majd Kamalmaz, who has been missing since 2017.
Tice would be a real triumph for Trump.
Tice’s family have spoken admirably about President Trump’s commitment to bring US hostages home saying that no other president has gone as far as he has - and there may be some truth in this. But few believe Trump is doing it out of compassion but more for the political capital it brings.
And that is really at the heart of the matter now. Trump has been trying for some time to engage with Assad and the regime but Tice’s mother is convinced that nothing has happened as she believes Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is blocking real talks to free their son. They claim that in 2015, in Damascus, a key Assad figure told them to “bring” a senior US official to Syria in order to free Austin.
This was a remarkable statement on a number of levels. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, it was the first time that the Assad regime had tacitly admitted that Tice was held in their captivity.
Since August 2012, when Tice was captured at a roadblock outside of the capital, the generally held belief – and one which was touted by the regime – was that the former marine was actually held by ‘rebel' groups. This was a ruse, supported even by a Sunday Times journalist who later was exposed as having close links to Assad, to create a layer of protection, a buffer to the case. US hostages gain political value in Washington the more years have passed, a lesson learnt from the 80s in Lebanon where they formed the backbone of scandalous, erroneous foreign policy blunders like the Iran Contra scandal or even Lockerbie.
And so the Assad regime was keeping Tice, investing in him for when the time was right to use him as a bargaining chip with a US administration.
But the mysterious call to the Tice family in Damascus also revealed that the Assad regime had a particular format of how they wanted talks to proceed – which has not been respected by the Trump team.
Could it be secretary of State Mike Pompeo has refused to play the role of negotiator? And did the call to the Tice’s family form the basis of the Trump camp’s confidence that Tice was alive and well?
Interestingly, recent reports in Syria indicate that Assad has punished various intel officers and prison guards for gossiping about the where Tice is in Syria, as it is believed that he is regularly moved from prison to prison so that a relationship is not formed between prison guards as a security measure.
But we should not put too much hope in a Trump victory in securing Tice. For one, the rationale is skewered as it is clear that the recent inertia from Trump is really all about stealing the limelight of the US media, parading Tice in front of the cameras as he touches down on US soil and Trump meets him.
Trump understands only too well the power of the media and this is his goal. The Syrians know this and will place a very high price on Tice’s release, probably linked to sanctions, along with Iran.
Of course, it hasn’t helped matters that recently Trump spoke candidly about assassinating Assad only to be held back by a sage secretary of state who advised against it. Sanctions increased almost daily on Syria, Iran and Hezbollah officials, not to mention two huge missile strikes on Assad’s installations in 2017 and 2018. This all makes talks much harder and the price on Tice even greater - points which Tice’s family shy away from when talking to the press.
The Syrian regime, like Iran’s, will probably take a ‘wait-n’see’ approach to the elections rather than rush anything on a Tice deal now. Perhaps more ominously, which is really holding up a deal, is that no one in the Middle East trusts Trump to keep his word anyway, least of all Syria and Iran.
The most likely outcome is that Tice will not be released before the US presidential election but could be used as a bargaining chip in the event of either Trump coming back, or Biden winning and then the lifting of US oil sanctions and a return to the table to the beleaguered so-called Iran deal.
For the family of Tice, it will be little comfort that although Trump showed some zeal in trying to get their son back, it is his pitiful blundering in the region which will almost certainly make it a more realistic deal to be done under Biden, who holds a more pragmatic attitude towards Syria and Iran.
Trump’s bull-in-a-china shop approach towards the region’s tough guys like Assad just doesn’t work. For the man who had the ‘Art of the Deal' ghost-written about his own so-called deft business practice, Trump, in reality is a lousy negotiator and an even worse communicator. He just doesn’t get it and doesn’t know how to get what he wants from China, North Korea, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon. Even the European Union or NATO. The list is endless.
Probably it was the Tice family who brought their son’s capture to his attention and which formed the basis of the Trump administration’s “new information” that Tice was alive and well in November 2018 – and not Trump’s own initiative when taking office.
So, in reality, all of the hype on the Tice release is just that. It’s what Trump would call himself “fake news”. Indeed, many would argue that if he knew that Tice was held by the Assad regime for so long – and not by rebels – but then chose to do nothing about it until a few weeks before his own re-election bid, then does that make the US complicit?
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