The United States administration has initiated new efforts to locate missing journalist Austice Tice, who disappeared from Syria while covering the civil war in 2012. Nearly a decade later, the US is seeking Lebanon’s help to locate Tice.
Lebanon’s intelligence chief Major General Abbas Ibrahim on Friday said he would visit Syria for talks with the country’s leaders about the fate of Tice. Three administrations of the United States government have tried to negotiate with Syria to bring back the journalist.
So, who is Austin Bennett Tice and why have US negotiations failed to bring the journalist back home?
Austin Tice is a former member of the US Marine corps. He has worked as a journalist for different news agencies, including The Washington Post, McClatchy Newspapers, The Associated Press, CBS and others. He went missing in Syria on August 14, 2012. He was one of the few journalists reporting from Damascus during the Syrian Civil War (2011-present) when he disappeared. Hailing from Houston in Texas, Austin is the oldest of the seven siblings in the Tice family.
Tice disappeared three days after his 31st birthday. According to The Associated Press, Tice was last seen at a checkpoint in Daraya, a Damascus suburb. His last tweet was posted a day after his birthday on August 11, 2012.
Spent the day at an FSA pool party with music by @taylorswift13. They even brought me whiskey. Hands down, best birthday ever.
— Austin Tice (@Austin_Tice) August 11, 2012
However, a month after his disappearance, a video was released of him blindfolded, held by armed men and saying “Oh, Jesus.” Tice’s family confirmed to several media outlets that it was him in the video.
No one has heard from him since, though the US believes the Syrian government might be holding him.
In the 47-second clip, Tice tries to recite the Muslim declaration of faith, or shahada, but then switches to English and says, “Oh Jesus. Oh Jesus”, and rests his head on a captor’s arm.
Lebanon’s intelligence chief on Friday said he could not say whether Tice was alive in the absence of confirmation from the Syrian government. The US suspended its diplomatic presence in Syria 2012 as it descended into a civil war, and hence, negotiations in the search for Tice took a hit.
Even a decade later, the parents of Tice believe he is alive. During an interview with CBS News, Marc and Debra Tice said they were “100% certain” their son is alive. Their comment came after they met US President Joe Biden at the White House in May. Biden told Tice’s parents his administration would work “relentlessly” until his return was secured, after which Lebanon was contacted to locate the US journalist.
After Tice’s disappearance, the Federal Bureau of Investigation put out a poster offering a reward of up to $1 million for “information leading directly to the safe location, recovery, and return of Austin Bennett Tice.” But the journalist couldn’t be found.
The negotiations between the US and Syria to find Austin came closest when the Central Intelligence Agency director during the Trump administration, Mike Pompeo, held a secret meeting with Syria’s intelligence chief. The New York Times, in a report citing unidentified American officials, said the phone conversation between Pompeo and Syria’s Ali Mamlouk occurred in February 2017. However, further communications between the two countries collapsed after the US accused Syrian president Bashar Assad’s government of killing dozens of civilians in a sarin gas attack in April 2018 and president Donald Trump responded by launching a missile attack at a Syrian air base.
During the Trump administration, the US also urged Syria’s ally Russia to get Tice released from the country.
Earlier, during Barack Obama’s term, the then president had said the US remains committed to bringing home Americans held captive overseas and helping their families. This was a year after the administration promised to overhaul its handling of hostage situations. “We will not stop until we can bring our fellow citizens back to their families,” Obama said in a statement on the anniversary of the White House’s policy review in June 2016. The former president also specifically mentioned Tice’s name during the speech.
In 2014, Obama had also sent special operations troops to Syria on a secret mission to rescue American hostages, including journalist James Foley, but they did not find them. Foley was later killed by Islamic State extremists.
After suspending diplomatic ties with Syria, Lebanon played a major role in negotiations between the US and the Asad regime in the release of US citizens from the war-torn country.
Lebanese security officials in 2019 were able to get a US citizen, Sam Goodwin, released from Syria. Sam’s parents Thomas and Ann Goodwin in a statement to news agency Reuters said, “Sam is healthy and with his family, We are forever indebted to Lebanese General Abbas Ibrahim and to all others who helped secure the release of our son.”
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Lebanon’s role in locating Tice could be crucial since the country has good relations with Syria and the US’ arch-rival in the Middle East, Iran.
In a couple of months, the disappearance of Tice will complete 10 years. Several US citizens have been held in Syria since the war began there in 2011, including people held by jihadist groups such as the Islamic State.