Top White House counterterrorism official traveled to Syria for secret talks to obtain release of two American hostages, report reveals

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, a Trump administration official said on Sunday.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, named the official as Kash Patel, a deputy assistant to President Donald Trump and the top White House counterterrorism official, saying he had flown to Damascus.

‘It is emblematic of how President Trump has made it a major priority to bring Americans home who have been detained overseas,’ said the official, who was confirming a report in the Wall Street Journal.

The newspaper said U.S. officials hoped a deal with Assad could free Austin Tice, a freelance journalist and former Marine officer 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, the newspaper reported, but little is known about those cases. The Journal, citing Trump administration officials and others familiar with the negotiations, 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.

Syria erupted into civil war nearly a decade ago after Assad in 2011 began a brutal crackdown on protesters calling for an end to his family’s rule. The next year, the Obama administration cut ties with Assad over the war, which has killed at least 400,000 Syrians, displaced 6.2million residents and prompted 5.6million to flee the country.  Earlier this year, the Trump administration enacted economic sanctions on Syria in continued efforts to isolate the regime.

The last known discussions between the U.S. and Syrian officials was in 2010. Ibrahim Kamalmaz, one of Kamalmaz’s sons, praised Patel for embarking on the trip and saw it as a solid step towards reuniting with his father. ‘This administration is committed to our dad’s case, and we continue to speak with officials at the highest levels of the U.S. Government to bring dad home,’ he told The Journal on Sunday.

The Journal reported that Trump wrote Assad a private letter in March, proposing a ‘direct dialogue’ about Tice. Officials have reportedly tried several approaches to negotiate a deal.  The families of Tice and Kamalmaz believe both men are still alive, but the Assad regime has not confirmed that.

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. Ibrahim, according to The Journal, leads Lebanon’s General Security agency and has acted as a key mediator between the two countries.

In 2019, he helped ensure the release of Sam Goodwin, an American who traveled through Syria around May and was detained for 62 days. And last week, Patel was involved in the release of two Americans, a humanitarian worker and a businessman who were detained in Yemen by Iran-backed Houthi forces.

The Journal reports that the two Americans were exchanged for more than 200 Houthi loyalists who left Oman and returned to Yemen. 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.

The White House and the State Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.  Hundreds of U.S. soldiers were deployed to the country’s northeastern region as part of an effort to stop Islamic State re-establishing itself there.