High-level US officials made a rare visit to Syria in August for talks over the release of US citizens held prisoner there, it was revealed on Monday – a high priority for the Trump administration that has seen little apparent progress so far.
The secret mission focused on freelance journalist Austin Tice, now 39, who was taken into custody in 2012 while reporting and has remained in Syria since.
Who is detained journalist Austin Tice?
A Marine Corps veteran, Mr Tice is from Westbury, in southwest Houston, and was on deployment in Afghanistan – while also attending law school at Georgetown University – when he decided to become a photojournalist and cover the war in Syria.
When he first landed in Syria in 2012, one year into the revolt, the country was one of the most dangerous in the world but had not yet descended into the chaos that was seen later. It was generally assumed that President Bashar Al Assad's regime would fall, like the earlier Arab Uprisings in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. The opposition was yet to splinter, US involvement still appeared a possibility, and ISIS did not yet exist.
Beginning with photojournalism but soon moving on to reporting, his work included front page stories in revered US newspaper The Washington Post. Mostly embedded with the opposition Free Syrian Army, he reported on the violence, as well as moments of calm and UN mediation efforts.
Travelling from the north of Syria and down to central Damascus over several months, against the advice of other journalists, he snuck into the capital with the help of the FSA wearing an ill-fitting abaya and niqab. Other journalists at that time had kept visits to a few days and primarily stayed near the borders with Turkey and Lebanon.
When questioned on his willingness to take risks, he wrote a long Facebook post where he said that the US had "lost its pioneering spirit".
“People keep telling me to be safe (as if that’s an option), keep asking me why I’m doing this crazy thing, keep asking what’s wrong with me for coming here," he wrote.
"Our grandad's stormed Normandy and Iwo Jima and defeated global fascism. Neil Armstrong flew to the Moon in a glorified trash can, doing math on a clipboard as he went. Before there were roads, the pioneers put one foot in front of the other until they walked across the entire continent. America lost that pioneering spirit. We became a fat, weak, complacent, coddled, unambitious and cowardly nation. So that’s why I came here to Syria."
In August 2012, after almost three months in Syria, his stream of tweets, Facebook posts and other communication with the outside world stopped as he was heading towards Lebanon to take a break from the civil war, which had begun to get under his skin.
He has been missing since, with little known of his whereabouts. He is not thought to be with ISIS or the rebels, but the Assad regime has never admitted involvement in Mr Tice’s disappearance.
Mr Tice's parents, who believe according to information they have received over the years that Austin is still alive, have dedicated themselves to campaigning for his release, remaining outspoken about maintaining interest in his case.
Senior officials involved in the current negotiations have cautioned, according the The New York Times, that the attempt is still in the early stages and that they do not have any recent proof that Mr Tice is still alive.
While previous attempts to free prisoners held by the Assad regime have fizzled out, US-imposed economic sanctions are making life hard for them, and they seek the withdrawal of US troops.
US President Donald Trump has made it his goal to secure the release of people held in several other countries in the Middle East.