U.S. Ally Offered Bashar Assad's Wife Cancer Treatment in Effort to Advance Hostage Negotiations

In a move to leverage the U.S. position in hostage negotiations, a U.S. ally offered assistance with the cancer treatment of Syrian President Bashar Assad's wife.

The offer of the treatment preceded high-profile negotiations last summer in Damascus between two U.S. officials and Syrian government officials about the fate of U.S. hostages, including Austin Tice, an American journalist captured more than eight years ago.

According to the Associated Press, despite the Americans' goodwill effort, little movement came from the talks because of the Syrians' demands for the removal of sanctions, withdrawal of troops from the country and return to normal diplomacy between the two countries—terms that would have turned U.S. policy in the country upside down.

"Success would have been bringing the Americans home and we never got there," Kash Patel, who attended the meeting as a senior White House aide, said in his first public comments about the talks.

The White House confirmed the meeting last October, but new accounts of the high-profile encounter have only recently surfaced through AP's reporting.

For more reporting from Newsweek's Tom O'Connor, see below.

Syria's war broke out a decade ago after security forces cracked down hard on anti-government protests, which then evolved into an armed uprising that expanded across the country from the southern city of Daraa. Scores of loosely affiliated rebel groups began to emerge, some backed by the U.S. and its regional partners, and some with close ties to jihadi ideologies that would consume the insurrection, especially with the rise of ISIS in 2013.

With ISIS gaining ground across half of Syria and a third of neighboring Iraq, another Middle East power stepped in: Iran. Tehran doubled down on support for its longtime ally in Damascus in 2014, in part through the mobilization of militias originating from Lebanon to Pakistan, and also shored up paramilitary forces against ISIS in Iraq.

The U.S. launched an anti-ISIS military coalition in both countries that same year, and in 2015 teamed up with a new non-state faction on the ground in Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces, a group composed of mostly Kurdish fighters. Around this same, Russia staged a direct military intervention in Syria to aid the pro-government campaign, which quickly began to reverse territorial losses incurred in the earlier years of the conflict.

Today, Syria is divided among rival factions. The government controls up to two-thirds of the country as well as the lion's share of its population. The Syrian Democratic Forces run much of the northeast, while opposition elements have established control with the support of Turkey across pockets of territory along the northern border.

About 900 U.S. troops are deployed alongside the Syrian Democratic Forces mostly near oil and gas resources in the northeast and alongside rebel fighters at a southern desert garrison in Al-Tanf.

President Joe Biden has ordered a review of the Pentagon's extensive troop presence across the globe but has yet to announce any moves regarding the future of U.S. ground troops in Syria.

Syria
A U.S. ally reportedly offered Syrian President Bashar Assad's wife cancer treatment in an effort to advance hostage negotiations. In the photo, activists paint the wall of a landmark erected in a roundabout in Syria's rebel-held northwestern city of Idlib on March 14, 2021, the wall showing a stylized figure "10" with the hands of a prisoner behind bars in the middle of the "0" digit and a flag of the Syrian opposition flying from the "1" digit with the word "revolution" in Arabic underneath, a day ahead of the 10th anniversary of the uprising against Assad. MUHAMMAD HAJ KADOUR/AFP via Getty Images

For more reporting from The Associated Press, see below.

The details of last summer's negotiations shed light on the sensitive and often secretive efforts to free hostages held by U.S. adversaries, a process that yielded high-profile successes for Trump but also dead ends. It's unclear how aggressively the new Biden administration will advance the efforts to free Tice and other Americans held around the world, particularly when demands at a negotiating table clash with the White House's broader foreign policy goals.

The August meeting in Damascus represented the highest-level talks in years between the U.S. and the Assad government. It was extraordinary given the two countries' adversarial relationship and because the Syrian government has never acknowledged holding Tice or knowing anything about his whereabouts.

At the time of the meeting, Patel was senior counterterrorism adviser at the White House after serving as House Intelligence Committee aide, where he gained some notoriety for advancing Republican efforts to challenge the investigation into Russian interference into the 2016 election. He was previously a Justice Department prosecutor under President Barack Obama.

The meeting was more than a year in the making, Patel said, requiring him to seek help in Lebanon, which still has ties with Assad.

The men arrived as part of an intentionally small delegation, driving through Damascus and seeing no obvious signs of the conflict that has killed around a half-million people and displaced half of Syria's pre-war population of 23 million over 10 years.

Inside an office of Ali Mamlouk, the head of the Syrian intelligence agency, they asked for information about Tice as well as Majd Kamalmaz, a psychotherapist from Virginia who vanished in 2017, and several others.

Hostage talks are innately challenging, with negotiators facing demands that may seem unreasonable, at odds with U.S. foreign policy or that may produce nothing even if satisfied.

In this instance, the conditions floated by the Syrians, as described by multiple people, would have required the U.S. to overhaul virtually its entire Syria policy.

With their demands unmet, the Syrians offered no meaningful information on Tice, including a proof of life, that could have generated significant momentum, Patel said. Though he said he was optimistic after a "legitimate diplomatic engagement," he looks back with regret.

"I would say it's probably one of my biggest failures under the Trump administration, not getting Austin back," Patel said.