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Opinion After 10 years of agony, it’s time for Syria to free Austin Tice

The Washington Post unveils a #BringAustinHome banner on the exterior of The Post's headquarters on Aug. 9, in Washington, D.C. (Maansi Srivastava/The Washington Post)

After a decade of no progress, it was encouraging to see President Biden’s confident assertion on Wednesday about our abducted colleague, journalist Austin Tice. “We know with certainty that he has been held by the Syrian regime,” Mr. Biden said of Mr. Tice, who was detained and disappeared 10 years ago this weekend while covering the Syrian civil war. Mr. Biden didn’t say when it was known, or how. Syria has not acknowledged holding him.

But if Mr. Tice is being held by Syria, that might indicate he is alive, and there is a prospect of negotiating his release with a government — even one as brutal as the regime led by Bashar al-Assad — as opposed to a shadowy armed group. We share Mr. Biden’s commitment to keep attention focused on Mr. Tice, who the president said “put the truth above himself and traveled to Syria to show the world the real cost of war.”

A former Marine captain, Mr. Tice wrote for The Post and McClatchy newspapers. He was planning to depart Syria for Lebanon on Aug. 14, 2012. He got into a taxi but never made it to the border. Five weeks later, a video emerged that showed an unidentified group of armed men holding him. The title of the video was “Austin Tice is Alive.” But no one has ever claimed responsibility for the hostage-taking, nor made demands for his release.

Debra and Marc Tice: Biden wants our son freed. How long will it take for his administration to act?

Over the decade-long nightmare that followed, Mr. Tice’s parents, Debra and Marc Tice, have been indefatigable in pressing for his release, including a valiant but ultimately fruitless attempt by his mother to engage with Syrian officials in Damascus. President Donald Trump in March 2020 sent a letter to the Syrian government proposing “direct dialogue” about the case. Two U.S. diplomats were sent to Syria that August in an attempt by Mr. Trump to get some traction. Nothing has worked, so far.

The New York Times reported last year that during the Obama administration the CIA obtained a Syrian document indicating its government had been holding Mr. Tice. It was described as a type of judicial form, possibly showing a prisoner or arrest number. This could be what is behind Mr. Biden’s certainty.

Mr. Biden should directly ask Syria’s leader for proof that Mr. Tice is alive. There has been only silence for too long. If proof of life is forthcoming, initiating some high-level U.S. communication with Damascus about the case would be appropriate — Mr. Trump already opened the door to that. Mr. Biden can reaffirm that he is personally engaged, if that helps. In general, making concessions for hostages only encourages more such barbaric behavior. But after so many years, it couldn’t hurt to have a discussion with Syrian officials and ask: What do they have to gain by holding Mr. Tice for another day? He is a journalist and noncombatant. On strictly humanitarian grounds, it is time for him to walk free.

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