With a presidential election looming in the United States, the continuing crisis in Syria is unlikely to make headlines. Aside from the COVID-19 pandemic, raging wildfires, and the occasional flare-up of violence in Idlib, Syria has been largely off the radar in the U.S. for quite some time.
Yet dramatic new revelations suggest that Syria could be on the administration’s agenda more prominently as President Donald Trump makes a serious, if desperate, move to secure American hostages thought by U.S. officials to be held in Damascus.
For the first time in almost a decade, senior U.S officials recently visited government-controlled areas of Syria for high-level hostage negotiation talks, a move that would have been unthinkable in earlier phases of Syria’s nine-year-long conflict.
The U.S seeks to secure journalist Austin Tice, who has been missing in Syria since 2012, and Syrian-American therapist Majd Kamalmaz, who has been missing since 2017. The American government believes these individuals are held in Syria; the Syrian authorities, for their part, have never publicly acknowledged holding them, nor have they denied it outright. The flurry of diplomatic activity to secure their potential release marks the culmination of a concerted long-term effort to reach out to Damascus on the matter.
What happened in Damascus?
In an exclusive, The Wall Street Journal reported that Kash Patel, a deputy assistant to the president and senior director for counterterrorism on the National Security Council, had traveled to Damascus for secret talks about U.S. hostages.
The report shed little other light on trip, including whether it was a one off or which Syrian officials the U.S. delegation met with. Incidentally, a Syrian version of events appeared in the local press only hours after The Wall Street Journal published its article, offering more detail on the trip and additional background information. This was clearly a message from Damascus to Washington in what is quickly becoming a high-stakes game of diplomatic chess.
Al-Watan, a news outlet with close ties to ruling circles, quoted a senior Syrian source who revealed that a meeting did take place in Damascus around August 2020. Titled “Washington is flirting with Damascus,” the piece describes how Roger Carstens, the U.S. special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, and Patel, a senior White House official, visited Syria last August and “met with Major General Ali Mamlouk, Head of the National Security Bureau, in his office in Damascus and discussed a wide range of issues.”
The source also referred to the meeting’s agenda as “looking into several files, including the file of the so-called ‘kidnapped’ Americans and the U.S. sanctions on Syria.” The source added that this visit by U.S officials had been preceded by three similar visits to Damascus during the past months and years, without giving specific details on the exact timeframe.
The Americans and Syrians have been locked in secret negotiations for some time now. Importantly, the location of the meetings — in Damascus rather than a more neutral venue — leaves much to be considered. If we take the Syrians’ word for it, this would be the fourth such meeting of its kind, a stark contrast to Washington’s narrative.
Curiously, travel to regime-held Syria for U.S officials has been effectively banned. Even academics, think tankers, and policy advocates have often been subjected to condemnation and outcries for visiting Damascus, usually accused of boosting Bashar al-Assad’s propaganda efforts. However, on this occasion, it was the U.S. side that revealed the trip — something which would have been unheard of in recent times. But Trump is desperate for a win domestically and managing to resolve the hostage issue could provide one.
Could this be the lead up to a potential deal between Trump and Assad, or have negotiations stalled? With the visit now becoming public knowledge, there are more questions than answers. Ultimately, Damascus stands to gain more than the U.S. from negotiations at present, and the Syrians have plenty of time while the Trump administration does not. The Syrians are notoriously difficult negotiators, and relations between the two sides have long since soured, not least due to the wide-ranging U.S sanctions on the regime.
Playing further into Damascus’s hand, President Assad has based his entire political strategy in engaging with the West on the premise that his government is the sole sovereign representative of the country. An official U.S. trip to Damascus to meet with Syria’s spymaster, Ali Mamlouk, only bolsters this idea. Whether these meetings lead to a tangible deal remains to be seen, but much is at stake. For the Syrians, this presents a golden window of opportunity to be treated as equals and given all the necessary courtesies.
Aron Lund, a Syria specialist who works with the Swedish Defense Research Agency, told MEI, “Whether the Syrian government will release any American prisoners depends on, among other things, whether it holds any American prisoners.” Lund noted that the official Syrian narrative on Tice has been the same for years: “I was part of a group interview with Assad in Damascus in 2016 in which he was asked this question, and he repeatedly said he did not have any knowledge on the matter. But he would say that, of course, and it’s impossible for me to know what’s true or false. The U.S. government certainly seems to believe the case is worth pursuing.”
According to a source in Damascus familiar with the U.S. visits, “The U.S. has been relentless in attempting to create dialogue on this topic. U.S. officials have visited and several tracks have been undertaken between Damascus and Washington, and the Americans would always go back on their promises or engage in activities counterproductive to the process [i.e. Caesar sanctions]. The Syrian line has always been the same: Anything is on the table and can be discussed, if the U.S. shows a commitment to withdraw its forces from the country.”
The difference today, however, is that the U.S. may actually be willing to concede on this key point. Lund continues, “You have Trump in the White House and he actually wants to pull the troops home from Syria. He has said so repeatedly. What’s holding him back isn’t Assad, it’s his own administration and some of Washington’s regional and European allies who are pushing for the United States to stay involved and to keep pushing for the dismantling of Assad’s regime and its regional alliances. In that very unusual context, if the hostage issue can be used to open channels to Trump, get messages and reassurances across, then it might turn into something of larger significance. At least, I suspect that’s what people in Damascus are hoping for.”
A flurry of US diplomatic activity
Trump has repeatedly referred to himself as the “greatest hostage negotiator this country has ever had” and has made a number of efforts to persuade the Syrians to negotiate, from writing a personal letter to the Syrian president to sending officials. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has confirmed that “President Trump wrote to Bashar al-Assad in March 2020 to propose direct dialogue.”
In his recent book, former National Security Adviser John Bolton discussed how Trump had a constant desire to call Assad about U.S. hostages. However, the Syrians rejected the overtures and as Bolton put it, “Fortunately, Syria saved Trump from himself, refusing even to talk to Pompeo about them.”
On June 23, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem confirmed Bolton’s claims during a press conference. The Syrians later backtracked and denied the claims in an official statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates that same day, saying, “In the context of the press conference held today by the minister of foreign affairs and expatriates the question was asked about what John Bolton had said regarding U.S. attempts to negotiate with Damascus. After scrutinizing what was circulated in the Western media about what was stated in Bolton's book and the American narrative in this regard, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirms that this narrative circulated is incorrect."
Given that the timeframe was close to the U.S officials’ trip, either al-Moallem’s political nous seemed to have temporarily escaped him or the Syrians were deliberately sending mixed messages. Washington-based analyst Ruwan al-Rejoleh suggests that these visits give us a deeper understanding of the state of relations between the two sides. “We can have a general understanding of the Damascus-Washington, D.C. relationship. The U.S. have already made their play, and it seems that Austin Tice (and others) are likely the price they want.”
Rejoleh added, “It is important to keep in mind that there are security arrangements between Washington and Damascus that have always served as an ongoing line of communication even during the peak of crises between the two countries.”
Such arrangements can be perceived as simple intelligence dialogues or messaging through intermediaries such as Russia or Lebanon. This also isn’t the first time U.S. officials have tried to negotiate with Damascus regarding Tice. The New York Times reported in 2017 that Pompeo, then head of the CIA, had conversations with Syrian intelligence chief Mamlouk regarding the case. So while there is a precedent for dialogue between the two countries in some capacity, the recent semi-official visits represent a marked change in attitude toward Syria from Washington.
The August visit to Damascus by U.S officials may have been brokered by the head of Lebanon’s General Directorate of State Security, Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, who recently visited Washington to meet with officials. Ibrahim previously secured the release of two tourists, an American and a Canadian, held in Syria.
Russia also has a vested interest in President Assad mending ties and engaging in dialogue with the U.S., which has limited Russia’s economic options in Syria with the Caesar sanctions. Although the true extent of Moscow’s role in the U.S.-Syria negotiations remains unclear, movement on hostage talks would be a welcome sign and potentially help alleviate some of the pressure Russia is facing in Syria.
US messaging toward Syria
Relations between the two countries have been toxic for the best part of a full decade, and even with discussions on the fate of hostages, the hostility between them, at least politically, is still highly charged.
For instance, in the wake of the U.S. Caesar Protection Act, which imposed heavy sanctions on Syria and its government, Damascus issued an aggressive response to the Black Lives Matter protests, asserting, “The U.S. administration that is chasing its citizens in the various streets of its states, killing people in cold blood, and practicing the most heinous forms of racial discrimination is the least entitled to rant about human rights.”
Moreover, Trump recently confirmed that he had even considered assassinating Assad at the time of the alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma, saying, “I would have rather taken him out. I had him all set. Mattis didn't want it.”
Yet as the impact of the “Summer of Caesar” sanctions wears off slightly, the U.S seems to be taking a surprisingly different tone. In a cryptic tweet following a wave of wildfires in Syria’s coastal region, the official Twitter account of the U.S. embassy in Damascus — usually one of the most hostile social media accounts toward Assad — tweeted a sympathetic message that referred to the Syrian “government” rather than the “regime,” saying that “The U.S. sympathizes with communities in Syria affected by fires ... Our thoughts are with those affected.”
Ultimately it is difficult to gauge how events will play out as the U.S. continues its pursuit of a deal with Syria to secure the hostages’ release. But if U.S. officials are meeting with Syrian intelligence in Damascus in 2020, what’s to say 2021 will not herald a year of political change in relations? With these visits, Trump has started a risky process with no guarantees of success.
Danny Makki is a journalist covering the Syrian conflict. He has an M.A. in Middle East politics from SOAS University, and specializes in Syrian relations with Russia and Iran. The views expressed in this article are his own.
Photo by JOSEPH EID/AFP via Getty Images