President Trump on Thursday called on Syria to help secure the release of kidnapped journalist Austin Tice, who was taken hostage by jihadist militants in the war-torn nation almost eight years ago.
During a news conference by the White House coronavirus task force, Trump implied that the regime of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad was holding Tice and asked the country to release him on humanitarian grounds.
“Syria, please work with us, and we would appreciate you letting him out,” Trump said. “We’ve done a lot for Syria and we have to see if they’re going to do this. It would be very much appreciated if they let Austin Tice out immediately.”
Trump said he could not confirm that Tice is alive, but he would like the journalist to be released from captivity if he is.
"If he is alive, we would like to get him back very quickly," Trump said.
Tice, a former captain in the U.S. Marine Corps, had traveled to Syria as an independent journalist in May of 2012, before his final year at Georgetown Law School. The Texas native was covering events in Syria for McClatchy, The Washington Post and other news organizations when he disappeared just days after turning 31.
About five weeks after his disappearance, a 43-second video emerged online showing him in the captivity of what his family described as an "unusual group of apparent jihadists." The men in the video have Tice bound and blindfolded. They chanted "Allah-Akbar" throughout the clip and at one point, forced him to recite a prayer in broken Arabic.
Tice's mother, Debra, said last year that she's “reasonably hopeful” that her son might be found, but also expressed frustration at a senior administration official, who has allegedly been obstructing the effort. She also credited Trump for pushing harder than the Obama administration did to secure her son's release.
“This administration is pressing it much more diligently than the previous administration,” she told McClatchy.
“There is a deliberate, concerted effort to make this happen. I think it has not happened because somewhere at the senior level there’s some kind of obstruction," Debra Tice added.
In June 2017, the New York Times reported that then-CIA Director and current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had reached out to a Syrian government official in an effort to secure Tice's release.
The backchannel shut down, however, after Syria launched a nerve gas attack on rebel-held territory in the northern part of the country. The Trump administration responded with a missile strike and negotiations fell through.
In April 2018, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) offered a $1 million reward "for information leading directly to the safe location, recovery, and return of" the former Marine.
Pompeo called upon the Syrian government to release Tice, and any other American hostages being held in Syria, back in September while addressing members of the media.
"The Trump administration never forgets about Americans wrongfully detained or held hostage abroad," he said. "Among the more than 100,000 people who have been detained or disappeared in Assad's prisons is American journalist Austin Tice.
Trump’s plea to Syria came just hours after Iran released American Michael White from prison on a medical furlough.
White's release on humanitarian grounds was conditioned upon him staying in Iran. He is now in the custody of the Swiss embassy where he will undergo a medical evaluation.
White, who was sentenced to 13 years behind bars in 2018, is accused of insulting Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and posting a photo on his social media.
White’s family has said he traveled to Iran to visit his girlfriend — the two met online — and was arbitrarily detained. He previously served in the Navy for 13 years.