WASHINGTON — Before the Senate left for Christmas, Texas’ senior senator said there is now “high confidence” that a Houston journalist about to miss his fourth Christmas with his family is still alive in Syria.
As the 2011 Arab Spring protests drew violent reprisals from President Bashar al-Assad that spiraled into civil war, Austin Tice reported from Syria for McClatchy Newspapers, the Washington Post, and other outlets. His background as a U.S. Marine Corps infantry officer enabled him to get close to the fighting as a war correspondent, and he quickly earned the respect of the Free Syrian Army fighters.
“Spent the day at an FSA pool party with music by @taylorswift13. They even brought me whiskey. Hands down, best birthday ever,” reads Austin’s last tweet, on Aug. 11, 2012.
Tice disappeared as he was trying to travel to Lebanon.
On Sept. 26, 2012, a video titled “Austin Tice still alive,” showing the journalist blindfolded and praying to Jesus, was posted on a pro-Assad website, and raised alarms about the Syrian government’s potential role in his capture. The Assad regime has denied any involvement.
On the Senate floor Dec. 9, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said he’d recently met with Tice’s parents, who “have been keeping a flame alive, hoping that Austin has survived the circumstances of his capture.”
“They traveled over from Houston to visit with me about a briefing that they had received recently from James C. O’Brien, the presidential envoy for hostage affairs. Just earlier today I had a chance to be briefed by Mr. O’Brien, and he delivered positive yet cautious news about Austin,” Cornyn said.
“Mr. O’Brien and his team informed me that they have high confidence that Austin is alive in Syria along with other Americans who are being held captive. While this is certainly positive news, I can’t help but think of his parents and what they have had to go through these last four years. They’re not just counting the months, they’re not just counting the days, but they’re literally counting the minutes and the seconds since he’s been gone and then counting those milestones that we typically observe in our families, birthdays and holidays that they will never recover.”
Last December, Bloomberg reported that U.S. officials were quietly negotiating with Assad to release four or five unidentified American citizens held by the Syrian government. In April, Assad released Kevin Dawes, a U.S. citizen who has been held since 2012.
Cornyn said the latest news “should remind us that we cannot give up until we bring Austin Tice home.”
“I renew once again my call for his immediate release by his captors, and I strongly urge the current and future Administration to continue to utilize all possible means to secure his safe return,” the senator said.
In December 2012, a Syrian general who defected from Assad’s forces and was leading FSA rebels told PJM “there is no way any opposition party would keep or capture any American journalist.”
“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. 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.
After the ISIS beheadings of Foley, Sotloff and Kassig, the Tice family said they had information that led them to believe Austin was not being held by ISIS.
On Nov. 2, the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists, the Newseum in Washington posted a Reporters Without Borders banner on the building with Tice’s photo and the words, “Held captive for being a journalist since August 2012.”
Delphine Halgand, the U.S. director of the press freedom group, said they wanted to send “a very clear reminder” to President Obama “that Austin’s safe return home must be a priority during his final days in office.”
“Time is of the essence for him to do everything in his power to make this happen,” Halgand said.
That day, State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters that they “continue to remain deeply concerned Austin’s well-being.”
“And that’s across our government. And across our government, I can assure you that people are working very hard every day to try to bring him home to his family,” he said. “So even though we don’t have a lot of information right now, we’re going to continue to work with our Czech protecting power in Syria to continue to gain and to glean as much information as we can.”
Kirby added that he had no new information on Tice to share.