The CIA’s director held a secret negotiation with Syria’s intelligence chief earlier this year as part of an effort to free an American journalist taken hostage in the Arab country five years ago, The New York Times reported Friday. The phone conversation between CIA boss Mike Pompeo and Syria’s Ali Mamlouk occurred in February, the newspaper reported, citing unidentified American officials. The subject was Austin Tice, a former Marine who has reported for The Washington Post, McClatchy Newspapers, CBS and other outlets.
While further communications followed, the Times reported that the diplomatic effort collapsed after the U.S. accused Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government of killing dozens of civilians in a sarin gas attack in April and President Donald Trump responded by launching some 60 cruise missiles at a Syrian air base.
The Pompeo-Mamlouk call would represent the highest-level communication between the two governments in years. It also is surprising given the widespread allegations of Mamlouk’s culpability in human rights atrocities in Syria’s civil war. Mamlouk has been subject to U.S. sanctions since 2011. The CIA declined to comment.
Tice disappeared in 2002 while working near Damascus, shortly after his 31st birthday. A month after his kidnapping, a video was released showing him blindfolded, being held by armed men and saying “Oh, Jesus.” He has not been heard from since, though the U.S. has believed Syria’s government might be holding him.
No nation or group has come forward saying it has Tice. Syria’s deputy foreign minister told The Associated Press last year that Tice “is not in the hands of Syrian authorities.” The report of the secret talks came after U.S. officials confirmed a separate set of unpublicized negotiations with North Korea to free another American in captivity, Otto Warmbier. The 22-year-old University of Virginia student, who fell into a coma during his captivity, died Monday after he returned to the U.S. last week.
The two “back channel” efforts show the Trump administration’s willingness to engage in secret diplomacy with some of America’s most intractable foes. Trump has threatened North Korea with the possibility of pre-emptive attack as it nears the capacity to strike the U.S. mainland with a nuclear-tipped missile. The U.S. considers Assad’s government in Syria a state sponsor of terrorism that provides critical help to anti-U.S. and anti-Israel groups such as Hezbollah.