US won’t change its Syria policy in order to free missing Americans, Pompeo says

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was asked if the Trump administration would consider meeting the Syrian regime's terms, which reportedly include withdrawing all American forces from the country.

al-monitor Marc and Debra Tice, the parents of US journalist Austin Tice (portrait L), who was abducted in Syria in 2012, give a press conference in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, on Dec. 4, 2018. Photo by JOSEPH EID/AFP via Getty Images).

Oct 21, 2020

Efforts to free missing Americans in Syria won’t involve a change in US policy, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said today, brushing aside reports that the Syrian government’s demands include a full withdrawal of US troops from the country. 

The Wall Street Journal first reported this week that White House officials Kash Patel and Roger Carstens were dispatched to Damascus earlier this year for rare high-level negotiations with Syrian intelligence chief Ali Mamlouk. The American delegation was reportedly there to broker the release of freelance journalist Austin Tice, who disappeared while covering the civil war in 2012, and Majd Kamalmaz, a psychotherapist from Virginia missing since 2017. 

According to The National, Syrian negotiators have included a full US troop pullout in their list of demands. Regime-friendly media later reported that withdrawal was a precondition for any talks on the missing men.  

Asked in a press briefing today if removing troops was an option on the table, Pompeo demurred. 

“Our ask is that the Syrians release Mr. Tice, tell us what they know. They have chosen not to do that,” he said. “We’ll continue to work for the return not only of Austin, but for 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," he added.

Former US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford said that although the Syrians are hard negotiators, they are more likely than not to overplay their hand by asking for a full withdrawal. 

“The Syrian government may be thinking, here’s a quick win if we can get the Americans out in return for a few American citizens,” Ford said. “I don’t think the Americans will take the offer, but you never know with Donald Trump.” 

Trump, who has long pledged to bring troops home from Syria and other "endless wars,” caught his own generals off guard when he ordered the sudden withdrawal of troops from northern Syria prior to Turkey’s invasion last October.  

The announcement triggered rare bipartisan outrage in Congress, with many in his own party denouncing the president’s decision as one that betrayed America’s Kurdish partners, opened the door for an Islamic State resurgence and undermined the administration’s maximum pressure strategy to contain Iran. 

In the end, Trump partially walked back his decision and left a small number of troops behind to guard the oil fields in eastern Syria and advise partner forces at the al-Tanf outpost near the Jordanian border in eastern Syria. 

Another drawdown of US troops could further embolden Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has regained control of two-thirds of the country and has vowed to seize every inch. 

But the mere fact that a high-profile White House delegation met with his sanctioned-security chief inside Syria is itself a win, said Randa Slim, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. 

“This kind of overture undermines in my opinion US-Syria policy and cements the perception for Assad and his inner circle that all they have to do is wait out for the Americans to come around and start negotiating with them, which has happened,” she said.

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