Top White House official went to Syria seeking Americans’ release

The White House West Wing entrance as seen early in the morning prior to U.S. President Donald Trump departing on campaign travel to Michigan and Wisconsin in Washington, D.C., U.S., October 17, 2020. (Reuters)

SULAIMANI (ESTA) — A White House official traveled to Damascus earlier this year for secret meetings with the Syrian government seeking the release of at least two U.S. citizens thought to be held there, Reuters cited a U.S. official as saying.

The official, who spoke under condition of anonymity according to Reuters, named the official as Kash Patel, a deputy assistant to U.S. President Donald Trump and the top White House counter-terrorism official.

“It is emblematic of how President Trump has made it a major priority to bring Americans home who have been detained overseas,” Reuters quoted the official as saying.

The official confirmed a report in the Wall Street Journal which cited Trump administration officials and others familiar with the negotiations regarding Patel’s trip.

The newspaper described Patel’s trip as the first time such a high-level U.S. official had met in Syria with the isolated government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in more than a decade.

Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. officials were hoping a deal with Assad would lead to freedom for Austin Tice, a freelance journalist and former Marine office who disappeared while reporting in Syria in 2012, and Majd Kamalmaz, a Syrian-American therapist who disappeared after being stopped at a Syrian government checkpoint in 2017.

At least four other Americans are believed to be held by the Syrian government, according to the newspaper, but little is known about those cases.

The last known talks between White House and Syrian officials in Damascus took place in 2010. The United States cut off diplomatic relations with Syria in 2012 to protest Assad’s brutal crackdown on protesters calling for an end to his regime.

The Journal reported that Trump wrote Assad a private letter in March, proposing a “direct dialogue” about Tice.

It said that Lebanon’s top security chief, Abbas Ibrahim, met last week at the White House with national security adviser Robert O’Brien to discuss the Americans held in Syria, according to people involved in the talks.

Talks with Syria have not gotten very far, according to people briefed on them, the newspaper reported, saying Damascus has repeatedly demanded Washington withdraw all its forces from the country.

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