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Mother of Austin Tice accuses Pompeo of blocking son’s release from Syria

Debra Tice has called President Trump “an advocate and an ally” to families with loved ones in captivity overseas.
Debra Tice has called President Trump “an advocate and an ally” to families with loved ones in captivity overseas. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
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The mother of an American taken captive in Syria eight years ago accused Secretary of State Mike Pompeo of “undermining” White House efforts to negotiate his release.

In a statement released Monday under the title “Bring Austin Tice home for Thanksgiving,” Debra Tice said her family had been thrilled to learn that two senior White House officials traveled to Damascus in August to discuss the case with Ali Mamlouk, the head of Syria’s intelligence agency.

Austin Tice, a freelance journalist from Texas, disappeared Aug. 14, 2012, at a checkpoint in a Damascus suburb as he was trying to reach Lebanon.

U.S. officials have said they believe he is still alive and in the custody of either Syrian forces or a militia allied with the government.

Debra Tice called President Trump “an advocate and an ally” to families with loved ones in captivity overseas, but she had scathing words for Pompeo, whom she characterized as standing in the way of freedom for her son.

“Unfortunately for Austin, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is undermining the President’s crucial outreach, refusing any form of direct diplomatic engagement with the Syrian government,” she said.

At a news conference last week, Pompeo was asked about efforts to free Tice and Majd Kamalmaz, another U.S. citizen who was arrested shortly after he arrived in Damascus in 2017 to visit relatives. Pompeo, who has frequently called for Syria to help gain Tice’s release, replied that the State Department tries to “compartmentalize” prisoner issues from foreign policy.

“Our ask is that the Syrians release Mr. Tice, they tell us what they know,” he said. “They have chosen not to do that so far. We’ll continue to work for the return not only of Austin, but of every American that’s held. We’re not going to change American policy to do that. As the President said clearly, we don’t pay for the return of hostages.”

Pompeo’s answer infuriated Debra Tice, who in the past has accused State Department officials of blocking negotiations for her son’s freedom.

She said Pompeo’s remarks meant, “in essence, there is nothing he is willing to do to bring my son home. This is in stark contrast to President Trump’s statement, ‘We stand with the Tice family and will not rest until we bring Austin home.’ President Trump is committed to seeing Austin walk free, whereas Secretary Pompeo is willing to accept his continued detention.”

Pompeo is traveling in Asia, and the State Department declined to comment immediately.

But in a statement released Tuesday, U.S. hostage envoy Roger D. Carstens said he understands Tice’s anguish, but disagrees with her characterization of Pompeo’s role. 

“Contrary to what Mrs. Tice has written and stated, Secretary Pompeo has been unwavering in his efforts to bring Austin Tice home — in his capacities as the former Director of the CIA and now as the Secretary of State,” Carstens said, adding that Pompeo directed and authorized the risky trip to Damascus. “The Secretary knew full well that Iran had vowed to get revenge for the U.S. strike that resulted in the death of Iranian General Soleimani — so sending two senior administration officials into Syria required him to weigh the cost versus benefit of retrieving Austin should things go wrong. Secretary Pompeo assumed that risk and ordered us to go.” 

 Tice and her husband, Marc, have worked tirelessly to draw attention to their son’s case. A former Marine, Austin Tice had completed two years of law school at Georgetown University before traveling to Syria to report on the civil war, then in its early stages. His work appeared in The Washington Post, McClatchy newspapers and other news organizations.

The only sighting of him since his disappearance was in a video a few months after he was taken captive, showing him being led blindfolded down a rocky hillside while armed, masked men chanted “Allahu al-Akbar,” Arabic for “God is great.” Tice is then shown being pushed to his knees before he recites a few words of a prayer in Arabic and says, in English, “Oh, Jesus. Oh, Jesus.”

The Syrian government has never acknowledged having Tice in custody, and it has released other Americans taken prisoner after him.

The Obama administration established a Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell and created a special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, but Trump has elevated the release of U.S. citizens held unfairly in foreign prisons into a top priority for the administration. Many families with loved ones in captivity have praised the Trump administration for its efforts to keep them informed and its success in securing the release of Americans held in a wide range of countries, including North Korea, Turkey, Egypt, Iran and Afghanistan.

Negotiations with Damascus are made difficult by the fact the U.S. government does not have relations with the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Trump has taken a strong interest in Tice’s case. First in March and later in August, on the eighth anniversary of Tice’s abduction, the White House issued a statement in which Trump called on the Syrian government “to work with us to find and return Austin. I am again calling on Syria to help us bring him home.”

In August, U.S. Ambassador Roger Carstens, an envoy for hostage affairs, and Kash Patel, a top White House counterterrorism adviser, visited Damascus. Al Watan newspaper, an outlet aligned with the Syrian government, said U.S. officials had made three similar trips before then.

Earlier this month, the head of Lebanon’s general security directorate, Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, who has helped negotiate the release of other prisoners, met in Washington with Robert C. O’Brien, the national security adviser who had been the U.S. hostage envoy. O’Brien was expected to raise the cases of Tice and Kamalmaz.

In her statement Monday, Debra Tice said the Syrian government has opened the door for dialogue regarding her son’s release, and she urged the administration to embrace the overture.

“This opportunity should be enthusiastically engaged as a giant step toward not only the safe return of my son Austin, but also toward an end of strife in Syria, and the beginning of relief for the Syrian people,” she said. “Our President can and should insist upon continuing the dialogue with the Syrian government … People who agree about nothing else agree Austin’s captivity has gone on for too long and it is past time to secure his safe return.”