Top U.S. Official on Secret Syria Visit for Talks on Missing

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A top U.S. official recently visited Syria for rare, secret high-level talks on securing the return of two Americans missing in the war-torn country for years, the daughter of one of them said Monday.

The visit of Kash Patel, deputy assistant to President Donald Trump and the top White House counterterrorism official, was first reported by The Wall Street Journal on Sunday.

There was no immediate U.S. comment on the reports.

There has not been a confirmed visit by a high-level American official to Damascus since the U.S. shuttered its embassy in the capital and withdrew its ambassador in 2012 as the country’s civil war worsened.

However, numerous U.S. officials, both military and civilian, have traveled to rebel-held parts of the country in the years since.

The visit would be seen as a boost by the internationally isolated government of President Bashar Assad, which faces U.S. and European sanctions for its role in the 9-year war. In recent months, as the war subsides, a number of Arab countries that had boycotted Assad have begun reopening their embassies in Damascus.

Majd Kamalmaz, a 62-year-old clinical psychologist from Virginia, disappeared in 2017 and is believed to be held in a Syrian government prison.

Freelance journalist Austin Tice, 39, has been missing for much longer. Tice, a native of Houston, Texas, vanished Aug. 14, 2012 after he got into a car in the Damascus suburb of Daraya to make a trip to Lebanon and was detained at a checkpoint.

Kamalmaz’s daughter, Maryam, said the family learned of Patel’s visit last week. “Praying for the best from it,” she said, speaking to The Associated Press in a series of messages. She said they believe the trip was within the past two weeks but she had no further details.

A pro-Syrian government newspaper Al-Watan confirmed Monday the Journal’s report, adding that Patel and Roger Carstens, special presidential envoy for hostages affairs, were in Damascus in August, where they met with the Syrian intelligence chief to discuss the Americans.

The paper, which usually conveys government positions, said Syrian officials have demanded a U.S. troop withdrawal from eastern Syria, where they have been deployed alongside Kurdish fighters. Damascus considers the U.S. troop presence there illegal and is at odds with the Kurdish group seeking autonomy. The paper also said it was the third such secret visit by senior U.S. officials in past years.

Trump has made negotiating the release of U.S. citizens held hostage or imprisoned in foreign countries a priority.

A top Lebanese intelligence official visited Washington last week. General Security chief Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim has recently negotiated the release of a U.S. citizen from Syria and a Lebanese who is also a permanent U.S. resident from Iran.

Former national security adviser John Bolton wrote in his recent book that negotiations on the U.S. role in Syria were “complicated by Trump’s constant desire to call Assad on U.S. hostages.” He said he and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo thought it was “undesirable.”

“Fortunately, Syria saved Trump from himself, refusing even to talk to Pompeo about them,” Bolton wrote.

Kamalmaz’s daughter, Maryam, said the family still has no news about her father’s health or whereabouts. “We are hoping this meeting will bring some updates and news about him.”

Tens of thousands of people are believed held in Syrian prisons since the country’s civil war broke out in 2011. Many are held incognito for years in lock-ups rife with torture and disease. In the country’s war, militant groups have also resorted to kidnapping foreigners for ransom or rivals to settle scores.

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