American tourist freed in Syria is beneficiary of arcane Middle East chess game

Sam Goodwin unwittingly carries message from Tehran to US

US traveller Sam Goodwin, who was captured by Syrian regime forces in the Syrian city of Qamishli in May and released this month. The National
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An American round-the-world traveller did not know what he was getting into when he was arrested in a Syrian government-controlled district in the Kurdish city of Qamishli in May, hours after he entered the country.

The arrest of wayward war tourist Sam Goodwin by regime forces was a seemingly random event that took on a greater significance given Syria's geopolitical landscape and President Bashar Al Assad's dependence on Iran, which is currently embroiled in escalating hostilities with the United States.

Considering Iran’s huge influence on Mr Al Assad and his secret police, it seems unlikely Damascus would have released a US citizen without first consulting Tehran. On the other hand, if Tehran did want to indicate a desire for de-escalation, the release of an American national in Syria comes at little political cost for Iranian officials, who might appear weak domestically if they had unilaterally released US citizens held in Iran.

When he was released last week, Mr Goodwin, 30, became the second US national or resident to be freed by Iran or its proxies in the region in as many months.

The release of Mr Goodwin ran counter to recent escalation in hostilities between the United States and Iran, and could even offer a way forward to solving the crisis stemming from the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.

The regime released Mr Goodwin through Lebanese security chief Abbas Ibrahim, one of its allies in Lebanon, after the regime satisfied itself that Mr Goodwin was neither journalist nor aid worker, both groups that have been targets for torture, disappearance or outright killing since the 2011 uprising and the ensuing civil war.

Mr Ibrahim, a Shiite, is well-linked regionally and among the Lebanese political scene.

Mr Goodwin aimed to visit every country in the world and without a visa had crossed from Iraq into Syrian Kurdish-controlled territory. The Syrian Democratic Forces control north-east Syria, which is dominated by a Kurdish militia opposed to Turkey, but a detente allows Syrian regime forces to remain in parts of Qamishli and nearby Hassakeh, in neighbourhoods where the official Syrian flag still flies and posters of Mr Al Assad cover concrete blast walls.

In May, Mr Ibrahim, the Lebanese security chief, was involved in securing the release of Lebanese businessman Nizar Zakka, a Green Card holder, after a four-year detention in Tehran. Mr Zakka said at the time his release was a message that Iran was seeking an opening. A US State Department official said the Iranian move was not enough, pointing out that Mr Zakka was not a citizen, and described the US prisoners Iran was holding as hostages.

Both Mr Goodwin and Mr Zakka were ultimately insignificant figures, which may have helped their case, said Lebanese military analyst Nizar Abdel Kader. "There was little advantage for Iran in holding them," he told The National from Beirut.

There was no immediate reaction from Washington.

Mr Abdel Kader said such cases could offer a very small prelude to political breakthrough, given that senior-level mediation between Tehran and Washington has failed since the visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Iran in June.

Blackmail, pure and simple.

For years, Washington has demanded the release of US citizens held in Iran. Among them is 82-year-old Siamak Namazi and his son Baquer; US Navy veteran Michael R White; Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent missing since 2007; and university student Xiyue Wang.

Although within the orbits of Moscow and Tehran, the Damascus regime could be keen to send its own message to Washington, given its isolation by the West and its inability to secure any significant reconstruction funding.

But for the Syrian regime it might be too late for rapprochement through prisoner releases. The regime is seen by US officials as responsible for the disappearance of at least six Americans. Although their families retain some hope they are still alive, there are serious fears that at least some of them may have been killed by the regime.

Among them is journalist Austin Tice who disappeared in 2012, and several citizens holding dual nationality.

Layla Shweikani, a Syrian American who returned to Syria from Illinois in 2015 to provide humanitarian assistance in areas besieged by the government and its Iranian-backed militia allies, was tortured and executed, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Unlike its patron Iran, the Damascus regime is often unable to restrain its own brutality for the sake of potential diplomatic benefits.

Fawaz Tello, a prominent Syrian opposition figure, said Mr Goodwin’s abduction and release “bears all the hallmarks of Iran and the regime talking tough for public consumption while indicating the opposite through other means”.

But the US should remember who detained Mr Goodwin in the first place, Mr Tello said from Berlin, where he lives in exile.

“It was the regime that abducted him and kept him hostage for two months and now Iran, with the regime as its sidekick, want to send a message by releasing him,” he said.

“It is blackmail, pure and simple.”