The Trump administration’s on-again off-again efforts to secure the release of Americans held hostage by Syria’s Bashar Assad regime are back on with a vengeance.
In the final weeks of an election that Trump is heavily favored to lose, his administration has received a senior Lebanese intelligence official, Abbas Ibrahim, who arrived in Washington with information about what the Assad regime might demand in exchange for freeing three Americans held by the regime, but whose fate and whereabouts are unknown. Among them is Austin Tice, a journalist who disappeared in Syria more than seven years ago, whose release has been the focus of extensive diplomatic efforts by two American administrations. Following Ibrahim’s visit, the Trump White House dispatched two senior officials to Damascus to renew dialogue with the Assad regime over the terms of a hostage release. Based on news reports, the price of a deal would be extraordinarily high. Assad has apparently communicated that nothing will be possible while U.S. forces remain on the ground and without easing U.S. sanctions on Syria.
The administration’s interest in securing the release of American hostages is commendable, even if its motivations may be more electoral than humanitarian: Watching Tice walk off a plane in the U.S. before November 3 would be an October surprise that is likely part of the administration’s calculus. More understandable is the determination of the families of those missing to pursue every possible chance for securing their return.
However, even recognizing that the timing of elections makes an October surprise unlikely, there are critical questions the Trump administration needs to answer before taking any further steps in its negotiations with the Assad regime.
First: Do we have proof that the hostages over which the administration is bargaining are alive? As difficult as this question might be, there should be no negotiations whatsoever until the Assad regime provides verifiable proof of life evidence of all three Americans at the center of recent diplomacy. The odds that such proof exists are distressingly low. According to a reliable Syrian opposition news source, the regime has recently launched a wave of arrests of regime officers who might have information about the status of American hostages, including whether they are alive at all, to prevent any possible leaks that might derail the regime from securing its key objective: the removal of U.S. forces. Such moves are not a reassuring signal about the current fate of Tice and the others.
Second: Is the price the Assad regime will exact for providing proof of life so high that it will undermine broader American policies in Syria and Iraq, weaken U.S. capacity to sustain operations against ISIS, abandon Kurdish allies, and leave thousands of displaced Syrians in the Rukban internally displaced persons camp vulnerable to the brutalities of the Assad regime? If the U.S. accepts the regime’s demand to remove troops as a precondition for providing proof of life, all of these outcomes become more likely.
Third, and perhaps most important: What leads the Trump administration to believe that Assad would honor a deal should one be reached? As former Secretary of State Colin Powell said of his dealings with the Syrian president: “I have no use for President Assad. I’ve negotiated with him. He’s a pathological liar. You can’t trust anything he says.” The regime is entirely capable of falsifying evidence of proof of life to get an agreement it knows it will never have to honor.
There is nothing the Assad regime would like more than to secure a U.S. agreement to remove its troops from Syria in exchange for a worthless promise to free American hostages. Instead, the U.S should demand verifiable proof of life as a precondition for beginning negotiations. The Trump administration should make explicit that elections have no bearing on its efforts to secure the release of Tice and others. It needs to establish the mechanisms that the Assad regime will have to accept under a deal to ensure that it cannot renege on its commitments. It should also make clear that while it remains fully determined to secure the release of all Americans illegally detained by governments, including in Iran, the administration will not do so if the cost is to weaken its strategic posture in the region by withdrawing U.S. forces, erode the effective sanctions regime it has carefully constructed in response to the Assad regime’s illegal conduct during Syria’s decade-long civil war, or diminish its ability to fight ISIS.