The Enduring Search for a Missing American Journalist in Syria
Dec 19, 2018 | 07:00 GMT
(JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)
Debra and Marc Tice left Beirut last week without their son. It was a disappointing, if unsurprising, end to their eighth trip to the Lebanese capital in the six years since Austin Tice, a freelance journalist and law student, vanished while covering the war in Syria. The Tices knocked on doors, hosted a press conference and applied for Syrian visas to plead for the Syrian government's assistance in freeing their captive son. Their meetings in Beirut produced little more than sympathy, their dignified presentation to the press corps received minimal coverage and the Syrian government did not grant them visas.
Now, they anticipate their sixth Christmas at home in Houston without the eldest of their seven children. Austin Tice's disappearance and prolonged captivity constitute a mystery that cries out for a solution. It began with his decision in 2012, just before the summer vacation preceding his final year at Georgetown University's law school, to publicize the suffering of the Syrian people.
"He Was Really Determined to Go"
The Syrian war was entering its second year in the spring of 2012, when Austin Tice approached an activist at the Washington-based Syrian charity People Demand Change. Tice, who had served as a U.S. Marine officer in Iraq and Afghanistan, explained that he wanted to cover the war in Syria as a photojournalist. The activist told me, "I can see he was really determined to go. I was very hesitant in helping him, but I was also, like, he's just going to go anyways. And if he doesn't at least know some good people, it will be disastrous. So, I put him in touch with some people I knew who were working with the Free Syrian Army and who were smuggling people in and out."
Tice was a combat veteran, but he had not worked as a journalist. He made freelance arrangements to offer photos and reports to The Washington Post, McClatchy Newspapers and CBS News.
Tice went to Turkey in May 2012 and, like many other journalists at the time, crossed the border into Syria. He was one of the few journalists to make it all the way from the north through Idlib, Homs and Hama to the outskirts of Damascus, recording rebel victories and defeats and documenting civilian trauma. His reporting would earn him the George Polk Award for War Reporting and the McClatchy Newspapers President's Award for 2012. The activist who helped arrange his passage recalled, "He would have been the first person to make his way all the way from Idlib to Daraa just via the opposition. And then he would exit in Jordan."
In August, nearly three months after his arrival in Syria, Tice had reached the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Daraya. The area was under government siege, and the road south to Jordan via Daraa was blocked. Tice decided to take the shorter route west to Lebanon. The Washington-based activist remembered, "Austin was telling people that he was getting nervous, that he was realizing he'd probably been in too long, that his whereabouts were probably becoming known." He said the government could have traced Tice through the cellphone calls he used to file his stories. Another source, who must remain anonymous, said a taxi driver whom Tice had met in northern Syria arrived to take him toward the Lebanese frontier. Tice and two other men departed in the taxi. At some stage, they left the car and proceeded on foot. Accounts of what happened differ.
Austin Tice was captured on Aug. 14, 2012, three days after his 31st birthday. He is now 37.
Because the government controlled the main Damascus-to-Beirut highway, the rebels were likely to take a route from Daraya, which lies southwest of Damascus, that avoided major roads by going west into the southern portion of the Anti-Lebanon mountain range. A Palestinian who was working to locate Tice and other missing journalists told me, "There were checkpoints for the regime and checkpoints for the Free Syrian Army. And they were close to each other … So, I think he lost his way." He believed government soldiers who took Tice did so "by mistake." Tice was captured on Aug. 14, 2012, three days after his 31st birthday. He is now 37.
Six weeks after his disappearance, a 46-second video clip made its way to the internet. It showed a blindfolded Tice and armed men dressed like jihadists shouting "Allahu akbar!" Tice said something in Arabic and then, in English, "Oh, Jesus." That was the last recorded sighting of him. On the face of it, the video looked like evidence that jihadist militants had kidnapped Tice as they had so many other journalists. However, the activists who worked with Tice insisted, "They're wearing, like, clothes from the Taliban. It was so obvious to any of us this is completely staged." They and many others believe the government was holding Tice and staged the video to blame his kidnapping on its opponents.
A Years-Long Effort to Find Their Son
Shortly after Tice's disappearance, I was in touch with a friend at McClatchy who also believed the regime was holding his colleague. On my many subsequent trips to Damascus, I asked government and military officials about Tice. They all denied that the government was holding him. However, many of them were unlikely to be privy to the secrets of Syria's security services.
Marc and Debra Tice launched an all-out search for their son. Debra stayed in Damascus for many months, going so far as to show her son's photo to shoppers in the souks and asking if they had seen him. The Tices felt that former President Barack Obama's administration did not do enough to locate their son, and they express more hope in President Donald Trump's special envoy for hostage affairs, Robert O'Brien. O'Brien stated in November that he believed Tice was alive and that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was actively pursuing the case. While still head of the CIA, Pompeo had called Syrian intelligence chief Ali Mamlouk to ask about Tice. This was despite the freeze in relations between the two countries. This promising link broke down following the U.S. bombardment of Syria in April 2017 over the deployment of chemical weapons.
The Tice family is not giving up. Marc and Debra, who are as decent a pair of parents as any I have ever met, reminded journalists at their news conference in Beirut that the FBI has offered $1 million for information leading to Austin Tice's safe return. U.S. media organizations are matching that sum, making the total reward $2 million. The Tice family has a website that tells Austin's story and where anyone who knows anything about his whereabouts can contact them.
It's not too late to bring him home for Christmas.