Taken in Syria: The Quest to Find Austin Tice

As Washington has been consumed with the campaign, as headlines have swung from Americans trapped at the diplomatic mission in Benghazi to an American doctor rescued Sunday from the Taliban, one American who dared to cover the crisis in Syria is in the hands of persons unknown.

Most clues point to Bashar al-Assad. The journalist’s family isn’t assessing blame right now, though — they just want answers and want their beloved son, brother, and friend home for the holidays.

Austin Tice, 31, was one of the few foreign journalists to report from Damascus after arriving in the war-torn country in May. He’d fallen in love with this part of the world on his tours as a Marine Corps infantry officer from 2005 to December 2011. Leaving the Corps with the rank of captain, Tice soon would put his studies at Georgetown Law School on hold to become a freelance journalist.

His battlefield experience lent immense credibility to the pieces he filed for McClatchy Newspapers, the Washington Post, and other outlets, and as a correspondent he quickly earned the respect of the Free Syrian Army fighters.

“Spent the day at an FSA pool party with music by @taylorswift13. …Hands down, best birthday ever,” reads Austin’s last tweet, on Aug. 11.

Two days later, he disappeared after departing for the Lebanon border.

On Sept. 26, a video titled “Austin Tice still alive” was posted on a pro-Assad website, and raised alarms about the Syrian government’s potential role in his capture. Foreign policy experts and Syrian natives alike agreed that everything from the poor production quality to the costumes and chants seemed staged to look like jihadi yokels, calling out “God is great” while leading a blindfolded Tice up a hill. Tice stammers an Arabic prayer followed by, “Oh Jesus, oh Jesus.” The video ends abruptly.

Even if the jihadis in the video were fake, family and friends confirm that it is Austin on the screen.

The State Department, though, has been hedging. “We’ve seen the video. We are not in a position to verify whether it’s him, whether it represents an actual scene that happened or something that may have been staged,” spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said on Oct. 1. “There’s a lot of reason for the Syrian government to duck responsibility, but we continue to believe that, to the best of our knowledge, we think he is in Syrian government custody.”

There were no demands accompanying the video, also a suspect sign, and the Syrian regime has denied any involvement in Austin’s capture.

“I think the Assad regime thinks Austin is a high-value asset that can be traded for some concessions,” one Syrian opposition source told PJM. “…The fact they staged the video is a signal that they want to use him but without the PR burden of being associated with his kidnapping. To go through this means they value Austin.”

Half the battle is getting requisite attention for Austin’s case. The State Department simply tells PJM that there’s “nothing new to add.” Tice’s parents, Marc and Debra Tice, are in Washington this week to try to stir support for their son’s case. They spent the days before Thanksgiving in Beirut, talking to media at the local press club about how to find their son. “We have all felt a terrible void in this prolonged silence,” Debra Tice told the Lebanese media. “With the approaching holiday season we are even more dismayed by the empty chair at our family table.”

Their congressional representative, Al Green (D-Texas), would not respond to repeated PJM requests for comment. Multiple lawmakers contacted by PJM about the case did not even know about this American missing in Syria — a publicity casualty of the campaign news barrage in the weeks after he disappeared.

“This is the oldest of our seven children,” Debra Tice told PJM. “This is the child that made me a mother. He was over in Syria as a journalist wanting to tell the story of a people’s struggle, and as a journalist he is under certain international protections. The fact that he is now silent because of that commitment is reason enough to want to see him returned safely.”

“The question that I ask is, if this were your child what would you want?”

Christina Arnold, a friend of Austin’s, told PJM that “he couldn’t stand to see what’s going on with the children” falling victim to the fighting in Syria. “That was his main purpose in going over there.”

She panned a lack of responsiveness to requests of the State Department and brushed off the department’s assertion that he can’t be positively ID’d in the video — he’s lost a lot of weight, she confirmed, but is certainly her friend. “I couldn’t even breathe when I saw that video,” Arnold said. “It’s definitely him.”

Arnold started the Free Austin Tice accounts on Twitter and Facebook and a Change.org petition calling for his release. She found the large protests in Syria, demanding his release, after he went missing “really touching.”

“It has to be Assad,” she said. “[Austin] was really, really good friends with hundreds of rebel leaders.”

Austin’s parents stress that they don’t know who’s holding him and don’t want to rush to conclusions in their quest to get their son home.

A Syrian general who defected early this year and now leads rebel forces told PJM this week that if Austin had been captured by opposition forces, even Salafists, “he would be in the United States.”

“There is no way any opposition party would keep or capture any American journalist,” he said. “We would have known immediately. I know this with no ifs, ands, or buts.”

The general said Austin’s route from Darayya to the Lebanon border left him vulnerable to fall into the hands of Assad loyalists with close ties to Hezbollah. And that could provide powerful clues as to why Austin is being held: as a treasure to be used if needed.

“I can assure you of one thing: I can say he’s safe. I can assure the family he’s safe,” the general said. “I’m pretty sure he’s not in Syria.” Austin could possibly be in a Hezbollah stronghold in Lebanon, he added, completely hidden from anyone who would betray his location.

“They’re going to keep him as a card for the future,” he continued. “No way they will think about executing him. He is going to be safe until the time comes and he is played as a card.”

The general stressed who would know what happened to Tice: Assad allies Iran and Russia. Moscow has been selling arms to the regime and deflecting action against it at the United Nations Security Council, and the general said Russian “counselors” are on the ground with Assad’s loyalists — “wherever you go, wherever you turn.”

At press time, the Russian embassy had not returned a PJM request for comment.

As one of Syria’s neighbors who could know something about Austin’s whereabouts, the Turkish embassy told PJM that they’re looking into the matter to see if they can offer any information.

Richard Grenell, former spokesman for four U.S. ambassadors to the United Nations, runs Capital Media Partners in Los Angeles, which has been involved in four cases to free Americans held abroad — two of those in Iran.

He said bringing greater attention to a case such as Austin’s can have its risks and rewards. “Media attention only raises the bounty on their head,” Grenell said. “There is an appropriate time to go public and to use the media — only when negotiations are close and you know exactly what the other side wants.”

There needs to be work on a government-to-government basis first to identify exactly who is holding Austin, he said. And a congressional letter to the State Department from lawmakers on the Hill could be a very useful tool in getting that moving.

“You cannot go through the State Department and let them be the one in charge,” Grenell said.

Meanwhile, the Tice family is holding on to their faith and the hope that soon they’ll get a sliver of information that can bring Austin back.

“The thing that I think is the most effective is to pray and to really believe that there is the highest power that is sovereign over all the universe and fully in control, and to reach out to that power to bring our son home,” Ms. Tice said when asked what concerned Americans can do to help. “It doesn’t get any higher than that.”

“I know that we are carried on the incredible outpouring of kind thoughts, good will, prayer and more prayer,” she continued. “I know that is giving us the strength. My earnest prayer is that wave of good will will give us the strength to bring our son home.”

(The Tice family has set up a website, www.austinticefamily.com. Tips about Austin’s case can be sent to [email protected] or to PJ Washington.)