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Trump Administration Tried Secret Syria Talks to Free American Hostages

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Last summer, two U.S. officials ventured into hostile territory for a secret high-stakes meeting with American adversaries.

The Syrian government officials they were scheduled to meet in Damascus seemed ready to discuss the fate of U.S. hostages believed held in their country, including Austin Tice, a journalist captured eight years earlier.

The release of the Americans would be a boon to President Donald Trump months before the November election. A breakthrough seemed possible.

But the Syrians ultimately stymied their efforts with a series of untenable demands that would have fundamentally reshaped Washington’s policy toward Damascus, including the removal of sanctions, the withdrawal of troops from the country and the restoration of normal diplomatic ties.

Equally as problematic for the American negotiators: Syrian officials offered no meaningful information on the fate and whereabouts of Tice and others.

“Success would have been bringing the Americans home and we never got there,” Kash Patel, who attended the meeting as a senior White House aide, said in his first public comments about the effort.

The White House acknowledged the meeting in October, but said little about it. New details have emerged in interviews The Associated Press conducted in recent weeks with people familiar with the talks, some of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

The AP has also learned about U.S. attempts to build goodwill with Syria well before the talks took place, with Patel describing how an unidentified U.S. ally in the region offered assistance with cancer treatment for the wife of President Bashar Assad.

The details shed light on the sensitive and often secretive efforts to free hostages held by U.S. adversaries, a process that yielded high-profile successes for Trump but also dead ends.

It’s unclear whether the Biden administration will aggressively follow up on the Trump administration’s efforts to free Tice and other Americans held around the world, particularly when demands at a negotiating table clash with the White House’s broader foreign policy goals.

The August meeting in Damascus represented the highest-level talks in years between the U.S. and the Assad government. It was extraordinary given the two countries’ adversarial relationship and because the Syrian government has never acknowledged holding Tice or knowing anything about his whereabouts.

Yet the moment offered some promise. Trump had already shown a willingness to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East. And he had made hostage recovery a top foreign policy priority, celebrating releases by inviting freed detainees to the White House.

Months after the Damascus talks, as Tice’s name resurfaced in the news, Trump sent a note to Tice’s parents, who live in Houston, saying he “would never stop” working for their son’s release, his mother, Debra, told the AP. But Tice’s fate was unknown when Trump left office on Jan. 20 and remains so to this day. The former Marine had reported for The Washington Post, McClatchy newspapers, CBS and other outlets.

The Biden administration has pledged to make hostage recovery a priority, but also has called out the Syrian government for human rights abuses and seems unlikely to be more receptive to the conditions Damascus raised last summer in order to even continue the dialogue.

Tice has occupied a prominent spot in the public and political consciousness since disappearing in August 2012 at a checkpoint in a contested area west of Damascus. He had ventured deep into the country at a time when other reporters had decided it was too dangerous, disappearing soon before he was to leave.

A video released weeks later showed him blindfolded and held by armed men and saying, “Oh, Jesus.” He has not been heard from since. U.S. authorities operate under the assumption he’s alive. Syria has never acknowledged holding him.

Efforts to secure his release have been complicated by a lack of diplomatic relations and the conflict in Syria, where the U.S. maintains about 900 troops in the eastern part of the country in an effort to prevent the Islamic State group’s resurgence.

“My assumption is he’s alive and he’s waiting for me to come and get him,” said Roger Carstens, a former Army Special Forces officer who attended the meeting with Patel in his capacity as U.S. special presidential envoy for hostage affairs under Trump. He was kept in the position by Biden.

At the time of the meeting, Patel was senior counterterrorism adviser at the White House after serving as House Intelligence Committee aide, where he gained some notoriety for advancing Republican efforts to challenge the investigation into Russian interference into the 2016 election. He was previously a Justice Department prosecutor under President Barack Obama.

The meeting was more than a year in the making, Patel said, requiring him to seek help in Lebanon, which still has ties with Assad.

At one point, a U.S. “ally in the region” also helped build goodwill with the Syrian government by providing assistance with cancer treatment for Assad’s wife, he said, declining to provide further details. The Syrian government announced a year before the meeting that she had recovered from breast cancer.

The men arrived as part of an intentionally small delegation, driving through Damascus and seeing no obvious signs of the conflict that has killed around a half million people and displaced half of Syria’s pre-war population of 23 million over 10 years.

Inside an office of Ali Mamlouk, the head of the Syrian intelligence agency, they asked for information about Tice as well as Majd Kamalmaz, a psychologist from Virginia who vanished in 2017, and several others.

Hostage talks are innately challenging, with negotiators facing demands that may seem unreasonable or at odds with U.S. foreign policy or that may produce nothing even if satisfied.

In this instance, the conditions floated by the Syrians, described by multiple people, would have required the U.S. to overhaul virtually its entire Syria policy.

The U.S. shuttered its embassy in Damascus in 2012 and withdrew its ambassador as Syria’s civil war worsened. Though Trump in 2019 announced the withdrawal of troops from northern Syria, a military presence remains to help protect an opposition enclave in the northeast, an area that includes oil and natural gas.

With their demands unmet, the Syrians offered no meaningful information on Tice, including a proof of life, that could have generated significant momentum, Patel said. Though he said he was optimistic after a “legitimate diplomatic engagement,” he looks back with regret.

“I would say it’s probably one of my biggest failures under the Trump administration, not getting Austin back,” Patel said.

The outcome of the diplomacy was deflating for Tice’s parents, though they said it showed engagement with Damascus was possible.

“And it’s possible to have that dialogue without the United States national security being threatened, without our Middle East policy being impacted, without all the horrible things we were told over the years might happen if the United States actually recognized that there was a government in Damascus,” Tice’s father, Marc, said in an interview.

In a statement, the State Department said bringing home hostages is one of the Biden administration’s highest priorities and called on Syria to free them. But prospects for talks are uncertain, especially without a more substantial commitment from Damascus. It’s unlikely that the administration sees the Syrians, called out in December by the global chemical watchdog for failing to declare a chemical weapons facility, as credible negotiating partners.

Biden has said little about Syria, though he included it among international problems that the U.N. Security Council should address. In February, he authorized airstrikes against Iran-backed militias in Syria. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week the situation in Syria is as grave as ever.

Last November, after a journalist erroneously tweeted that Tice had been released, his mother wrote a note to be delivered to Trump saying she hoped he could one day make that news a reality.

Trump responded, photocopying her note and adding his own Sharpie-written message. “Debra,” he wrote, she recalled. “Working so hard on this. Looking for the answer. We want Austin back. I will never stop.”

But she said the family does not need letters from the president.

“The thing that is wanted here, the thing we are asking here, is to see Austin on the tarmac, and to have the president of the United States shake his hand,” she said.

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This Anti-Trump Republican is About to Go Down

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Members of the G.O.P. are scheduled to vote tomorrow to expel Conference Chair Liz Cheney from the No. 3 leadership post. The Wyoming Republican, daughter of former vice president Dick Cheney, is a vocal critic of Donald Trump even though they belong to the same party. This move to get her out of her position is a huge sign that Trump still has a powerful grip on the Republican Party. 

Cheney’s problems with her party sprouted from the January 6 Capitol riots, wherein a throng of Trump supporters mobbed the Congress. A few days after that chaotic event, Liz Cheney was among the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump for incitement of insurrection. The impeachment was unsurprisingly supported by the Democrats but the Republican-dominated Senate acquitted then-president Donald Trump.

House Republicans tried to unseat Cheney from her post as party conference chair but the Republican’s main guy in the lower chamber, Kevin McCarthy, advised members to keep her in that position. Ms Cheney would eventually stay due to a unanimous vote and since then her lambasting of Donald Trump continued for months.

Last week however, Cheney published an anti-Trump article on Washington Post which seemed to annoy McCarthy himself. He thought that the party would be able to move forward after helping to retain Cheney, but because of her continued divisive actions, McCarthy lost his confidence in her, eventually prompting him to take the necessary steps to try to remove her from power. 

This development will thrust Liz Cheney into the Never Trump spotlight further and will make her the face of that leaderless movement. The divided faction has already lost Arizona Senator John McCain when he died in 2018. Meanwhile, centrist Alaskan Senator Lisa Murkowski and Mitt Romney of Utah, with all their waning popularity, don’t seem all-in in the fight against Donald Trump.

Even though the voting is yet to take place, it is most likely that Liz Cheney will be unseated from her post. In fact, the party has already been considering a replacement. Only 36 years young, rising star Elisa Stefanik used to be a staunch Trump critic but went on to become an ally and even defended the former president in his 2019 impeachment trial. She also heavily endorsed Donald Trump during the 2020 campaign, stating that Trump is the “only candidate who is capable of protecting the American Dream”. Upon replacement of Liz Cheney, Elise Stefanik is expected to bring in a much-needed new voice in the House of Representatives.

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The White House Condemns Hamas Attacks On Tel Aviv

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Palestinian militants have launched thousands of rocket attacks on Israel since 2001 and the victims are mostly innocent civilians. These assaults were labelled as terrorism by the United Nations, European Union and Israel. On the other hand, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch classify the violent acts as war crimes. 

Recently, Palestinian militant nationalist organization Hamas attacked Tel Aviv with rockets, causing renewed conflict within the already-chaotic region. The U.S. government has condemned the attacks and called for a halt to the unnecessary mayhem that has left nothing but destruction and has already claimed many lives from both sides.

In an interview with the press, White House press secretary Jen Psaki stated that President Biden is being briefed regularly on the situation in Jerusalem and Gaza. The president’s team is communicating consistently with Israeli and Palestinian officials, along with other leaders in the Middle East, to try to de-escalate the ongoing attacks. 

“The president’s support for Israel’s security, for its legitimate right to defend itself and its people, is fundamental and will never waiver. We condemn ongoing rocket attacks by Hamas and other terrorist groups, including against Jerusalem. We also stand against extremism that has inflicted violence on both communities,” Psaki said.

During a briefing with reporters last Tuesday, State Department spokesman Ned Price stated “The loss of life of innocent Palestinian civilians, innocent Israelis, is something we deeply regret. It is precisely why we are doing everything we can, we are doing everything we can in coordination with our international partners to put an end to a cycle of escalation and a cycle of violence.”

The fighting has been brewing for many days until it escalated into a full blown attack by Hamas, which led to retaliatory strikes from Israel. There would’ve been more destruction in Tel Aviv, but fortunately they have intercepted some of the rockets in the sky, before they reach their targets.

National Security adviser Jake Sullivan has kept in touch with some allies in the Egyptian government and his Israeli counterpart Meir Ben-Shabbat. National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne informed the media that Sullivan sent a message that expressed support and encouraged peace. 

“He conveyed the President’s unwavering support for Israel’s security and for its legitimate right to defend itself and its people, while protecting civilians. He also conveyed the United States’ encouragement of steps toward restoring a sustainable calm. They agreed to continue to stay in close touch,” Horne told reporters.

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Pentagon Advances Probe Into UFO Sightings

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he theory that other life forms exist across the universe is nothing new to American society, modern or otherwise. However, throughout decades of pursuit by scientists and fanatics, there has been very little evidence that they exist. Thankfully, the military has the means to observe alien phenomena. They have the technology to fly in the sky on any given day and provide the surveillance needed.

Recently the Pentagon is investigating the military on their policies regarding the way they handle UFO sightings. This conduct evaluation was deemed necessary especially when the Pentagon recently confirmed the veracity of three leaked video footages, including one that featured a flying triangular object that was captured by a Navy pilot back in 2019. 

The leaked videos prompted the Department of Defense to establish the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force (UAPTF) back in August 2020. The Pentagon stated “The Department of Defense established the UAPTF to improve its understanding of, and gain insight into, the nature and origins of UAPs. The mission of the task force is to detect, analyze and catalog UAPs that could potentially pose a threat to U.S. national security.”

“The Department of Defense and the military departments take any incursions by unauthorized aircraft into our training ranges or designated airspace very seriously and examine each report. This includes examinations of incursions that are initially reported as UAP when the observer cannot immediately identify what he or she is observing,” the Pentagon added.

The 2021 Intelligence Authorization Act that was passed back in December 2020, commands intelligence agencies and the Defense Department to craft a report on what they know about unidentified aerial phenomena. This piece of information will then be submitted to the lawmakers for further scrutiny.

Science fiction fans must be really excited for the past few years for these revelations. The fact that UAPs are already being taken seriously by the Pentagon and other agencies is a huge development. However, we must remember that this is not proof that we have visitors from other planets. In fact, we are nowhere close to uncovering alien activity. 

With the technology that we have today, there are possibilities that those flying objects were just manmade. Regular citizens like you and I can afford to buy drones and capture footage of our world. So it is not surprising to know that what we have seen could just be some type of unmanned aircraft. The bigger concern of the government and the military right now, is that these UAPs might be deployed by rival superpowers to spy on American offensive and defensive capabilities.

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