In a dramatic turn of events, it was revealed that the United States sent Kash Patel, deputy assistant to President Trump and the top White House counterterrorism official, to talk to the Syrian government regarding the release of two Americans being held by the Syrians. It is not known currently with whom Patel met. The Wall Street Journal was the first to report the story.  

The two prisoners are Austin Tice and Syrian-American Majd Kamalmaz. There are also four other Americans believed to be held by Syria. 

Tice is a former Marine officer and freelance journalist who was kidnapped in 2012 while covering the Syrian Civil War. Majd Kamalmaz is a psychotherapist who was treating refugees in the region. In February 2017, he had traveled to visit an elderly family member in Damascus. A day after arriving, Kamalmaz was stopped at a Syrian Government checkpoint in Mezzeh, a suburb of Damascus, and has not been seen or heard from since that day.

With the presidential elections right around the corner, the move to secure the release of the Americans doesn’t come as a surprise. But this specific affair is complicated: the United States hasn’t had a meeting with any Syrian government official in the past 10 years and had cut diplomatic ties with the Assad regime in 2012. 

During the huge push by the Islamic State (ISIS) in 2014, the U.S. led a coalition of troops inside Syria to take on the terrorist organization. Although ISIS has been largely defeated since 2017, the U.S. remains entrenched in eastern Syria. There, it aids the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which are mostly comprised of Kurdish fighters, in combatting the final Daesh elements and in guarding the oil fields. Possession of the oil fields is necessary in order for the SDF to keep any kind of autonomy in the country. 

Since 2017, President Trump has frequently said that he wants the United States out of Syria. Despite the pushback from the Pentagon, Trump has said that he wants to stop these “endless wars.” 

This was reiterated by the State Department’s Syrian envoy James Jeffrey. He said that the U.S. is only working with the Kurdish SDF in a temporary, transactional manner and that SDF’s future lay in a deal with Damascus. This was not received well by the Kurds. Jeffrey had also supported Turkey’s — a major opponent of the Kurds — entry into the region. 

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Location of the American base at Tanf in Syria

No doubt major concessions will be required on Washington’s part to even find out whatever happened to Tice and Kamalmaz, of which little is truly known. A Syrian demand will most probably be that the United States has to withdraw from Syria, especially from the base in Tanf near the border with Jordan and Iraq. 

But the big sticking point could be the lifting of the crippling Caesar Act economic sanctions. Although the sanctions hurt the already badly damaged Syrian economy, their effectiveness will be diminished as long as Assad is propped up by Russia and Iran.

U.S. policy towards the Assad regime has evolved. During the early stages of the Syrian Civil war, the U.S. wanted Assad out. Yet, with massive airpower assistance from Russia, Assad solidified his position. Subsequently, the Obama administration stopped pursuing any offensive action against the Syrians as it sought to push the Iran-deal through. The Trump administration has walked a tough stance against the Assad regime. Therefore, dealing directly with Damascus is a drastic shift in policy.