Exclusive: Syria Demands Sanctions Relief, US Troop Pullout in Return for Help with American Captives

On his trip to Washington DC last week, Lebanon's security chief brought with him a list of demands from Damascus. The Trump administration wants to secure the return of American journalist Austin Tice and Syrian-American health worker Majd Ka­mal­maz, both missing in Syria; the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is looking for relief from crippling sanctions and the withdrawal of U.S. troops in exchange for its cooperation, Newsweek has learned.

Tice, a freelance journalist who disappeared in Syria in 2012, and Kamalmaz, a psychotherapist who vanished in the country in 2017, are at the center of the interactions between Washington and Damascus, which have not had formal diplomatic relations since 2012. Officials from both countries have previously established contact on the matter, but a new push came during a recent trip by Lebanese General Security director Major General Abbas Ibrahim, which comes less than three weeks before the U.S. presidential election.

Ibrahim visited Washington on Thursday, carrying with him information regarding Tice and Kamalmaz, a Lebanese official told Newsweek. The official, who was not authorized to talk on the matter, was granted anonymity.

Ibrahim met with White House national security adviser Robert O'Brien for some four hours in a discussion that outlined Syrian demands as part of a negotiation to end the uncertainty about the two apparently captive men's whereabouts, the Lebanese official said.

The Lebanese official, as well as a Syrian source familiar with the discussions, confirmed that the Syrian government is seeking to arrange with the Trump administration a deal that would entail the lifting of sanctions levied on Syria. The economic restrictions began shortly after unrest consumed the country in 2011, with the latest round announced in June, aimed at stifling the government of President Bashar al-Assad who the U.S. has accused of war crimes.

Such an arrangement would also include the withdrawal of U.S. troops stationed alongside rebel forces at a southeastern Syrian desert garrison called Al-Tanf, the Lebanese official and Syrian source told Newsweek.

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U.S. Green Berets drive through a checkpoint of partnered rebel group Maghawir al-Thawra after a joint patrol mission near Al-Tanf Garrison, Syria, April 29. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has long demanded U.S. troops withdraw from his country as they operated with Damascus' permission. Staff Sergeant William Howard/Special Operations Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve/U.S. Army

Trump has long expressed an eagerness to withdraw troops from Syria and has drawn down the number of U.S. forces there, though the Pentagon says about 500 remain deployed across the northeast alongside the mostly Kurdish Syrian Democratic forces, and in Al-Tanf, where opposition group Maghawir al-Thawra operates.

Newsweek interviewed a U.S. official involved in hostage recovery efforts about the work of the multi-agency Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, the U.S. government epicenter for U.S. hostage investigation, government coordination and collaboration with hostage families, to return U.S. citizens being held against their will abroad.

"The Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell is always assessing new information and strategizing how to safely bring home Americans held hostage overseas," the official said.

The official said the cell was working alongside the families of Tice and Kamalmaz, who have been vocal in advocating for their return.

"We partner with the family of hostages. Families often play an active role in bringing their loved one home," the official said. "That is the case in Syria, where we share resolute hope with the families that their loved one is alive."

Shortly after Newsweek's article was published, Tice's parents, Marc and Debra, released a statement in response to the most recent development regarding their son's case.

"For years we have pushed for engagement between the US and Syrian governments to help bring our son safely home, so we hope recent reports are accurate," the pair said."We are deeply grateful to everyone working for Austin's safe return, and his continued absence shows there is more to be done."

Tice, a Marine Corps veteran who served in Afghanistan and Iraq before giving up the pursuit of a law degree to become a photojournalist, vanished in the southern Damascus suburb of Darayya in August 2012.

He had entered Syria in May of that year and reported on the escalation of the country's civil war, filing stories to the Washington Post, CBS and McClatchy, where reports he contributed to earned a George Polk Award in February 2013.

Over a month after he vanished, a 46-second, handheld video emerged online that purported to show Tice, blindfolded and marching through rugged terrain by a group of armed men shouting "God is greater" in Arabic. The detainee that friends and family believe to be Tice speaks to the camera, in broken Arabic, an Islamic prayer often recited before death. The clip abruptly ends.

The men have never been identified, nor has any other footage emerged of Tice.

Kamalmaz has not been seen since reportedly being stopped at a security checkpoint in Mezzeh, southwestern Damascus suburb. He was in Syria to visit an elderly relative and sought to establish a clinic for those displaced by the conflict, according to his family, who said they received secondhand proof of life months after his disappearance from a former detainee who said he met Kamalmaz in prison.

Asked about the latest developments in the cases of Tice and Kamalmaz, the U.S. official involved with hostage recovery efforts told Newsweek, "The U.S. government abides by strict protocols when trying to verify the status of any given hostage."

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FBI reports detail the cases of journalist Austin Tice and psychologist Majd Kamalmaz, two U.S. citizens missing since disappearing years ago in Syria. Their captors have never been identified but Washington has quietly sought Damascus' assistance in returning them. Federal Bureau of Investigation

The Trump administration has said it was actively working to bring both men home.

In his first public remarks on the matter in November 2018, then-U.S. special presidential envoy for hostage affairs Robert O'Brien said he had "every reason to believe" Tice was still alive and called for Russian officials "to exert whatever influence they can in Syria to bring Austin home."

He also disparaged Iran's role in Syria as "not helpful" in efforts to release U.S. citizens in captivity abroad.

Both Moscow and Tehran support Assad in his war against an array of insurgent forces, some of which were actively supported by the United States and its regional partners.

Assad's administration has always publicly denied any knowledge of Tice's whereabouts. The Syrian mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to Newsweek's request for comment but previously condemned the U.S. military presence in the country in comments sent to Newsweek last month.

On the seventh anniversary of Tice's disappearance last August, State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said U.S. officials believed he was alive and that they "remain deeply concerned about his well-being."

Reports first emerged Friday in Lebanese and regional media suggesting Ibrahim was bringing information regarding Tice's case to Washington. Citing Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials and oth­ers fa­mil­iar with the ne­go­ti­a­tions. The Wall Street Journal on Sunday reported further on Ibrahim's trip, confirming that his discussions with U.S. officials touched on Tice and Ka­mal­maz.

Ibrahim served as mediator to the Syrian government in last year's release of Sam Goodwin, an American tourist who was held for two months in Syria during an attempt to travel to every country in the world, and of Canadian traveler Kristian Baxter.

The Journal also reported that Kash Pa­tel, senior director of counterterrorism on Trump's national security council, traveled to Dam­as­cus earlier this year in an effort to secure the release of Tice and Ka­mal­maz.

Patel recently oversaw the release of two other Americans, humanitarian worker Sandra Loli and businessman Mikael Gidada, who were being held in Yemen by Ansar Allah, a rebel Zaidi Shiite Muslim movement also known as the Houthis and supportive of Iran. In return, Washington facilitated the release of nearly 250 Houthi fighters stranded in neighboring Oman.

Patel's trip to Syria was corroborated by an article published Monday by Syrian state-run newspaper Al Watan, which cited anonymous sources saying Patel was accompanied by Roger D. Carstens, the current U.S. special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, and that he met with Ali Mamlouk, the head of Syria's National Security Bureau.

Al Watan reported that U.S. officials had conducted three similar visits to Damascus in the months and years preceding the latest trip.

Trump last spoke publicly about Austin Tice's case in March.

"We have one young gentleman, Austin Tice, and we're working very hard with Syria to get him out," Trump told a daily press briefing. "We hope the Syrian government will do that. We are counting on them to do that."

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The Lebanese head of General Security Major-General Abbas Ibrahim (C) speaks during a press conference with Kristian Lee Baxter (L), a Canadian formerly held captive by the Syrian government, and Canada's ambassador to Lebanon Emanuelle Lamoureux (R), following Baxter's release after an eight-month captivity, in the Lebanese capital Beirut on August 9, 2019. Ibrahim has demonstrated an ability to media on issues of captive citizens as he did for Baxter, as well as U.S. citizens Sam Goodwin, also imprisoned in Syria, and Nizar Zakka, who was held in Iran. MOHAMMAD AL-SAHILI/AFP/Getty Images

He said that his administration had written directly to Assad's officials in hopes of getting Tice out of the country and appealed directly to Damascus.

"We're doing the best we can, so Syria, please work with us, and we would appreciate you letting him out," Trump said. "If you think about what we've done, we've gotten rid of the ISIS caliphate in Syria. We've done a lot for Syria. We have to see if they're going to do this. So, it would be very much appreciated if they would let Austin Tice out immediately."

ISIS' once-sprawling, self-proclaimed caliphate was decimated by separate campaigns led by a U.S.-led coalition partnered the Syrian Democratic Forces, and a pro-government axis backed by Russia and Iran.

With the jihadis largely defeated, the U.S. military has remained in Syria to maintain control of and help local partners develop oil and gas reserves in the country's east.

Syria, along with Russia and Iran, consider the U.S. to be an occupying power in the country and have demanded a withdrawal. Trump has yet to come through on a campaign promise of ending "endless wars" launched in the region by his predecessors, but he has announced additional troop drawdowns in Afghanistan and Iraq in the run-up to the election.

At a Des Moines rally on Wednesday, Trump proclaimed he was "bringing all our soldiers back home" from warzones to which they've been deployed.

"In Syria, we're out," Trump said, "totally out."

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A U.S. military vehicle drives past the Tal Tamr area in the Hasakah province, northeastern Syria, in 2019. STR/Xinhua/Getty

This article has been updated to include a statement released by Marc and Debra Tice.