A top official of the Donald Trump administration traveled to Damascus earlier this year for secret meetings with the Bashar Assad regime seeking the release of at least two U.S. citizens thought to be held there, a visit described to be the first high-level contact between Washington and the regime in more than a decade.
A Trump administration official speaking to Reuters news agency Sunday, on condition of anonymity, named the official as Kash Patel, a deputy assistant to Trump and the top White House counterterrorism official, saying he had flown to Damascus.
"It is emblematic of how President Trump has made it a major priority to bring Americans home who have been detained overseas," said the official, who was confirming a report in the Wall Street Journal.
The White House and the State Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The newspaper, citing Trump administration officials and others familiar with the negotiations, said U.S. officials hoped a deal with Assad could free Austin Tice, a freelance journalist and former Marine officer who disappeared while reporting in Syria in 2012, and Majd Kamalmaz, a Syrian-American therapist who disappeared after being stopped at a Syrian regime checkpoint in 2017.
At least four other Americans are believed to be held by the Syrian government, the newspaper reported, but little is known about those cases.
The Journal reported that Trump wrote Assad a private letter in March, proposing a "direct dialogue" about Tice.
Talks with Syria have not gotten very far, according to people briefed on them, the newspaper reported, saying Damascus has repeatedly demanded Washington withdraw all its forces from the country.
Syria erupted into civil war nearly a decade ago after Assad in 2011 began a brutal crackdown on protesters calling for an end to his family's rule.