Exclusive: US ties with Assad could improve if missing journalist released

Robert O’Brien told The National that Washington is confident Austin Tice is alive and inside Syria

Former U.S. hostage in Yemen, Danny Burch, left, listens as President Donald Trump speaks, Wednesday, March 6, 2019, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, next to Vice President Mike Pence, and Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Robert O'Brien. At back, to the right of Trump, is national security adviser John Bolton. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
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US relations with Syria could improve and public communications reopen if Damascus released kidnapped American journalist Austin Tice, a special envoy told The National.

US special envoy for hostage affairs, Robert O’Brien, said Washington was confident that Tice, who was kidnapped in Syria while covering the conflict in 2012, was alive and still in the country.

Mr O'Brien reaffirmed Washington’s insistence that it would not pay or directly reward for the release of US nationals.

But he said that if Syria were to release Tice it would be a step towards building bridges with the administration of US President Donald Trump.

"The president has made it very clear that if you want to have better relations with the US, if you want the atmosphere for better relations, then don't hold our hostages, or help us find our hostages if they're missing in your country," he told The National in an exclusive interview.

A picture shows freelance photographer Austin Tice in Cairo in March 2012. The American journalist has been missing in Syria for more than a week, his most recent employers said on August 24, 2012, expressing concern for his safety amind fierce fighting there. AFP PHOTO/Christy Wilcox (Photo by Christy Wilcox / AFP)

Mr O’Brien said that North Korea released four US hostages without conditions, leading to presidential talks between the two countries.

“For governments like Syria, if they want to re-enter the community of nations and have a better atmosphere with the US, one of the ways is to help bring our hostages home,” he said.

“We are calling upon the government in Syria to do everything they can to help us find Austin as well as other Americans in Syria.”

Mr O’Brien said he didn’t want to get into who was or wasn’t holding Tice after reports over the years that various different pro-government groups had him in custody.

“We are confident he is alive. Our assessment he is in Syria,” he said.

The US government has not held public talks with Mr Al Assad since the Syrian conflict began in 2011.

Since former US President Barack Obama called on Bashar Al Assad to step down eight years ago, Washington’s position has been that the Syrian president must relinquish power.

Like his predecessor, Mr Trump directed air strikes against the Assad regime twice after the use of chemical weapons.

In the past, the US government has sought Russian help to secure Tice'a release and last year the reward for information leading to his whereabouts was increased to $1 million (Dh3.6m).

The number of US nationals kidnapped in Syria has not been publicly disclosed by the government but Mr O'Brien said that the 12 reported by The Washington Post "seems a little high".

Since the US closed its embassy in Damascus in 2012, all engagement with the Assad regime and consular services have been done through the Czech embassy in the Syrian capital.

Mr O’Brien praised the administration’s successes so far in securing the release of US hostages.

Mr Trump recently placed the figure at 20 but most counts put it closer to 13 since the president took office in January 2017.

Mr O'Brien said that despite the official policy of “no concessions, no prisoner swaps, no pallets of cash”, the president “made it clear this is a high priority of his, so there are other countries that are willing to help us".

He thanked the UAE for its assistance in releasing American citizen Danny Burch from Yemen in February and said that good relations with the Gulf countries have helped to foster co-operation to free US hostages.

US President Donald Trump shakes hands with Danny Burch, an American who was held hostage in Yemen for 18 months, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, March 6, 2019. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP)

On Iran, which holds at least five US citizens and one permanent US resident captive, Mr O’Brien said: "It's time to resolve the case of the longest held American, hostage Bob Levinson.”

Robert Levinson, 71, a former officer with the US Drug Enforcement Administration and FBI, disappeared from Iran's Kish Island in 2007.

Tehran has repeatedly denied holding him and the last images of Mr Levinson surfaced in 2011.

“We don’t have any reason to believe he is not alive,” Mr O'Brien said as he urged Tehran to release him.

“Bob has missed too many birthdays, weddings and holidays. He has a daughter who is getting married next month. It’s time to get Bob’s case resolved.”

He said that the release “would be a welcome gesture, a humanitarian gesture and demonstrate the Nowruz [new year] spirit".

This Image provided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation(FBI) shows a photo of former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who went missing on Kish Island, Iran, on March 9, 2007, shackled and holding a sign. The United States announced a $5 million increased reward March 9, 2015 for information leading to the return of Levinson, as it marked the eighth anniversary of his mysterious disappearance in Iran. The FBI had previously issued a $1 million reward for Levinson's return in 2012, five years after he went missing.    AFP PHOTO / HANDOUT / FBI                         == RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE / MANDATORY CREDIT: "AFP PHOTO / HANDOUT / FBI "/ NO MARKETING / NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS / NO A LA CARTE SALES / DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS == (Photo by -- / FBI / AFP)

Last month, the US Congress drafted legislation in Mr Levinson’s name that would increase sanctions on Iran.

Mr O’Brien said that the administration was still evaluating the bill but “welcomes the involvement of Congress in an issue that unites all Americans".

He warned Iran against trying to hold on to the hostages until after the president left office in 2020 or 2024, so it could negotiate with his successor.

“I have heard that the Iranians believe if they wait this administration out, that if a Democrat gets elected, that they would get money for releasing hostages,” Mr O'Brien said.

“I don’t think that this will happen. This policy will not change. Iranians are sorely mistaken if they think that a new president, whether it’s in two or six years from now, is going to pay them for hostages.

“It’s like piracy and human trafficking and slavery. If the Iranians don’t come to the table and if the Iranians don’t start releasing hostages, the sanctions will get worse and isolation continue."

He said that the Iranian government taking hostages was a "malignant activity" that traces back 40 years to the "very foundation of their revolution".

“It continued after the nuclear deal” agreed to between Tehran, the US and four other world powers in 2015.

Mr O'Brien gave the examples of US citizens Siamak Namazi and his father Baquer, who were imprisoned in 2015 and 2016.

“He said that Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif promised former secretary of state John Kerry that Siamak would be released, but he was not.

Nizar Zakka, a US permanent resident of Lebanese nationality, was taken prisoner in Iran a month before the nuclear deal was signed in October 2015.

Mr O’Brien said that the US called on the Iranian government to release Mr Zakka but the Lebanese government should be mainly responsible for having him freed.

He expressed surprise that Beirut was not doing more to get him out.
Mr Zakka, his lawyers and family have repeatedly accused Lebanon of not doing enough to secure his release but in 2016, during a visit to Beirut, Mr Zarif said his arrest was a "US-Iranian problem".

“The government of Lebanon has relations with Iran, and one of the parties [Hezbollah] has very strong ties," Mr O'Brien said.

"It’s surprising to me they are not using these relations to obtain Mr Zakka’s freedom."

This story has been updated to better reflect Mr O'Brien's comments, the headline has also been changed from its original form.