An aide to President Donald Trump travelled to Damascus earlier this year for secret talks to secure release of at least two Americans believed to be held by President Bashar Al Assad, officials familiar with the trip told the Wall Street Journal.
The visit by Kash Patel, deputy assistant to Mr Trump and the top White House counterterrorism official, is the first by such a high-level official since Washington cut off diplomatic relations with Syria in 2012 to protest against Mr Al Assad’s brutal crackdown on protesters calling for an end to his regime.
US officials were hoping these talks with the Assad regime would lead to freedom for Austin Tice, a freelance journalist and former Marine officer who went missing in Syria in 2012, and Majd Kamalmaz, a Syrian-American therapist who disappeared after being stopped at a Syrian government checkpoint in 2017. There are at least four other Americans who are believed to be held by the Syrian government, but little is known about those cases.
The families of both Mr Tice and Mr Kamalmaz believe that the two men are alive, despite the lack of conclusive evidence from the Syrian government.
Talks with the Assad regime have not progressed as hoped, according to people briefed on the negotiations, as the regime is demanding the US withdraw all its forces from Syria. There are several hundred American forces on the ground to help protect oilfields in the Kurdish-held north-eastern part of the country and prevent ISIS from regaining a foothold in Syria.
Mr Trump has taken a personal interest securing Mr Tice’s freedom, discussing his case at a press conference in March and issuing a statement on the eighth anniversary of his disappearance.