Late last month saw the release of Trevor Reed, a US citizen and former marine who had been detained in Russia since 2019 on a nine-year sentence for endangering the “life and health” of Russian police officers.
Now, Reed’s release has increased pressure on the Biden administration to act decisively on the number of other American hostages being held around the world, often for years, without apparent progress toward their return home.
One of those is 40-year-old Austin Tice, a former marine and freelance journalist for multiple media outlets, including the Washington Post, who was detained in Syria in 2012.
Last week, Tice’s parents, Debra and Marc, met with Biden at the White House, two days after Tice’s mother, Debra, attended the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. She says she was caught off guard when Biden said at the dinner that he would “like to meet you and Dad to talk about your son”.
The Tices have said they believe that the president’s personal involvement will signal to Syria that the US government views their son’s freedom as a diplomatic priority.
“Knowing that Biden supports the efforts and wants the same things we want gives them a license to pursue these things without worrying about repercussions or making a misstep,” Marc Tice told Axios.
But the US maintains an official non-engagement policy with the Assad regime, and Damascus has “repeatedly made clear” that they will not negotiate on Tice’s case with mediators. That’s left the Tice’s wondering how the administration plans to act on their son’s behalf.
“I left the meeting thinking those were hugely uplifting words. I can hardly wait to see some action, ”Debra Tice said. But she cautioned: “We’ve had lots and lots of words in the past nine years and almost nine months. We need action. ”
Tice is a marine veteran who had traveled to Syria in May 2012 to report on the civil war’s impact on the Syrian people. On his way out of the country three months later he was detained at a checkpoint in the southern Damascus suburb of Darayya.
Five weeks later a 43-second video titled “Austin Tice is Alive” was posted online showing him blindfolded and held by armed men. Six years later, in November 2018, the then special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, Robert O’Brien, said that US officials believed Tice was alive. He did not provide details.
During a March 2020 press briefing, President Donald Trump called on the Assad regime to release him.
“We have one young gentleman, Austin Tice, and we’re working very hard with Syria to get him out,” the president said. “We hope the Syrian government will do that. We are counting on them to do that.
“So, Syria, please work with us. And we would appreciate you letting him out, ”Trump added.
The Tice family are now hoping that Reed’s release in a prisoner swap for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a convicted Russian drug trafficker serving time in Connecticut, marks another rare moment of diplomatic energy around an issue that has largely been obscured under a crush of foreign and domestic political priorities by the last three successive presidents.
On Wednesday, Elizabeth Whelan, whose brother Paul is imprisoned in Russia serving a 16-year sentence on espionage-related charges, joined a rally outside the White House to press for greater official engagement on the issue.
“This is not something a normal family, just an everyday family, has to ever deal with. It is horrific. ” Whelan later said. She expressed disappointment that US diplomats had not secured Whelan’s release alongside Reed. “The fact that they couldn’t get them both out at the same time has re-energized that effort, and I hope it brings back the attention to all of these cases.”
The US government says that at least 55 American or legal permanent residents are being wrongfully detained or held hostage in countries including Venezuela, Iran, Afghanistan and Rwanda, according to the advocacy group Bring Our Families Home.
The group gathered outside the White House on Wednesday to plead for the Biden administration’s attention. Some at the rally said they had repeatedly tried to get a meeting with President Biden to discuss their family’s case.
“You have to go to the president, the one who is going to have to make the tough decisions to solve these particular cases,” Whelan said. “Either that, or there needs to be a better approach to wrongful detention so that we’re not constantly knocking on his door.”
Everett Rutherford, whose nephew, Matthew Heath, is jailed in Venezuela on terrorism charges, said the issue of American captives demands “action from the man who occupies the house behind me”.
In nearly all cases, the captives are being held by governments that view Washington as an adversary. Administration officials say the release of Americans wrongfully detained abroad is a foreign policy priority.
“We are doing everything we can, almost all of it unseen, almost all of it unsaid in public, to do everything we can to advance the commitment that President Biden has to see these Americans who are wrongfully or unjustly detained around the world or in some cases held hostage around the world brought home, ”state department spokesperson, Ned Price, said at a press briefing.
The most recent of those classified as “wrongfully detained” is Brittney Griner, the star center for the Phoenix Mercury, arrested in February at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport after a search of her luggage produced vape cartridges containing oil derived from cannabis.
The special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, Roger Carstens, “will go anywhere, he will talk to anyone if it means that we’re able to come home with an American, to reunite that American with her or his family”, Price said last week.
Bill Richardson, the former New Mexico governor who has long been involved in efforts to free Americans imprisoned overseas, including in North Korea, is reportedly also involved in the effort to secure Griner’s release. Richardson could not be reached for comment.
Robert Saale, a former director of Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, an intra-agency operation comprising hostage recovery experts from across government that works out of FBI headquarters in Virginia, told the Military Times last year that Syria’s complex dynamics had worked against Tice’s release.
“It’s almost like a perfect storm of circumstances, sort of unpopular times, where you’ve had chemical strikes by Syrians, followed by retaliatory strikes by the US government. It’s kind of a two steps forward, three steps back process, ”he said.
Last week the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, said the president’s national security team would henceforth remain “in regular contact with the Tices and other families of Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad.
“We appreciate the bravery and candor of families enduring these harrowing experiences, and we remain committed to supporting them and, most importantly, reuniting them with their loved ones,” Psaki continued.
Last summer, the Tices said they had grown increasingly frustrated with efforts to secure their son’s freedom. “We are also intensely frustrated by the irresolute, on-again-off-again involvement of our government and its insufficient resolve to secure Austin’s release,” according to a statement.
But following their meeting with Biden last week, the family expressed renewed optimism. “Trevor walking free means Austin can walk free,” Debra Tice said. “Because all of the things that I’ve been told that can’t be done obviously can be done. And now, I expect that they will be done. ”