U.S. Quietly Negotiating to Free Americans in Syria

Officials say top diplomats have been discussing the captives for weeks, outside the peace process.

Anne Patterson of State is said to be in talks with a top Syrian diplomat.

Photographer: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. government believes that the Assad regime is holding four or five American citizens and the State Department has been secretly negotiating with the Syrian government for their release, according to two administration officials.

Discussions between the U.S. government and the Syrian regime over the prisoners are said to have been going on for several weeks. They mostly involve direct contacts between Anne Patterson, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs and a former ambassador to Egypt and Pakistan, and Faisal Mekdad, Syria’s deputy foreign minister and former permanent envoy to the United Nations.

The high-level talks between the U.S. State Department and the Syrian Foreign Ministry represent some of the most significant direct interactions between the two governments since the civil war began five years ago. During the first years of the Obama administration, the State Department maintained an open channel to the Syrian regime and sometimes communicated through the Syrian representative office at the United Nations. But officials said the current discussions about the prisoners are not connected to the overall diplomatic push to find a solution to the crisis.

The Syrian government has acknowledged in private discussions with the U.S. State Department that it is holding one of the Americans, the officials said. That American citizen has received some consular assistance including a visit from officials at the Czech Embassy in Damascus, which serves as the protecting power for U.S. interests in Syria because the U.S. closed its embassy in 2012.

Details about the other prisoners are unknown. Officials said one or more may hold dual U.S. and Syrian nationality. It is unclear whether Syria follows the approach of Iran, which has denied consular access to American prisoners who have dual nationality.

Edgar Vasquez, a State Department spokesman, declined to confirm the number of American citizens believed to be in the custody of the Assad regime and said details about those prisoners could not be shared because of privacy and security concerns.

“We are deeply concerned about the well-being of U.S. persons reported missing or taken hostage in Syria,” he said. “We continue to work through our Czech protecting power in Syria to get information on their welfare and whereabouts.”

Vasquez acknowledged that the State Department has been in “periodic, direct contact” with Syrian government officials on consular issues, including the case of Austin Tice, the freelance journalist who was kidnapped in Syria in 2012. Vasquez also said the administration is in regular contact with the prisoners’ families.

Secretary of State John Kerry is set to hold another round of talks with Russian officials Friday in New York aimed at starting a peace process between the Syrian regime and the opposition. He said while in Moscow this week the U.S. is not seeking “regime change” in Syria.

Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies, said that secret negotiations over the prisoners shows the administration being practical.

“Nobody likes the Assad regime, but it’s not going away easily, so you have to deal the interim issues,” he said. “This underlines how problematic the Assad regime really is. This idea that the enemy of my enemy is my friend -- in the case of the Assad regime, it’s just not true.”

When negotiating a deal with Iran over its nuclear program, some in the Obama administration did not want to use that process to free American prisoners, because it would complicate the delicate diplomatic process. The White House has made a similar choice now, pursuing prisoners' release outside the peace talks.

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