Austin Tice: Syria denies holding journalist after White House claims otherwise

Syria’s foreign ministry said in a rare statement that the country “denies that it has kidnapped or harbored any American citizen who entered its territory or resides in areas under the sovereignty and authority of the Syrian government.”

The comments came a week after US President Joe Biden said Washington knew “with certainty” that Tice was being held by the Syrian government.

The Syrian government has repeatedly denied holding Tice, but before its statement Wednesday, it had not publicly addressed the journalist’s whereabouts since 2016.

Tice went missing in Damascus, the capital of Syria, while he was working as a freelance journalist for CBS, The Washington Post and The McClatchy Company.

Tice’s family said Austin was traveling to the Damascus suburb of Darayya to work on one of his final pieces for the summer on August 13, 2012, when he was stopped at a checkpoint. He was supposed to leave Lebanon the next day. The Texas native and US Marine Corps veteran was due to return home to finish his final year of law school at Georgetown University.

Since then, the only information Tice’s family has received from his captors is a 43-second video that surfaced five weeks after his disappearance. It was titled “Austin Tice is Alive” and showed Tice and a group of armed men, but had no other information.

In a statement this Wednesday, the Syrian government denied that Tice had been arrested.

10th anniversary of loss

Tice was among the first journalists to disappear after Syria’s peaceful pro-democracy protests, sparked by the Arab Spring, were violently crushed by the government of Bashar al-Assad.

Successive US administrations have maintained that Tice is alive and held captive somewhere in Syria. There is no indication that he was abducted or held by ISIS, which has killed several American journalists it kidnapped, including James Foley and Steven Sotloff.

Although the FBI offered a $1 million reward for information on Tice’s whereabouts, his case languished for years.

Tice’s parents worked hard to get the government and media to pay attention to their son’s disappearance. In a meeting with Biden at the White House in May, the President “reiterated his commitment to continue working in all available ways to ensure Austin’s long overdue return to his family.”

The Biden administration has been in direct contact with the Syrian government in an effort to free Tice, according to a source and a senior administration official. There have been some direct contacts — none of which took place in Damascus — but so far there has been no progress, the familiar source said.

Last week marked the 10th anniversary of Tice’s disappearance, which his family and the White House used to reiterate their requests for information.

“We know with certainty that he is being held by the Syrian regime,” Biden said in a statement last week. “We have repeatedly asked the Syrian government to work with us so that we can bring Austin home.

“The Tice family deserves answers, and most importantly, they deserve to be reunited with Austin quickly.”

Debra Tice, Austin’s mother, told CNN on Thursday, her son’s 41st birthday, that she was glad the President mentioned his name and that it was a sign the administration was ready to negotiate his release.

“I’m just glad that President Biden said Austin’s name publicly,” Debra Tice told CNN’s John Berman on “New Day.” “I think this is an indication from the President that the United States government is willing to engage with Syria to bring Austin home.”

In a separate statement Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington “will continue to pursue all available means to bring Austin home and will work tirelessly until we succeed in doing so.”

Among those tasked with bringing Tice home is Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens, who secretly traveled to Damascus and met with Assad regime officials in 2020 under the Trump administration. In May of this year, he met with Abbas Ibrahim, a top Lebanese security official, in Washington “to discuss US citizens missing or imprisoned in Syria,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said on that time.

Ibrahim, the head of Lebanon’s General Security Directorate, has played a role in securing the release of American detainees in the past, including Sam Goodwin from Syria and Nizar Zikka from Iran.