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Missing in Syria: Austin Tice

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Missing in Syria: Austin Tice

Who is he?:

Austin Tice, an American journalist who had reported from inside Damascus, wanted to cover the suffering of the Syrian people under the regime of Bashar Assad. He was last heard from in mid-August on his way to the Lebanon border. Tice had fallen in love with this part of the world on his tours as a Marine Corps infantry officer from 2005 to December 2011. Leaving the Corps with the rank of captain, Tice soon would put his studies at Georgetown Law School on hold to become a freelance journalist. His battlefield experience lent immense credibility to the pieces he filed for McClatchy Newspapers, the Washington Post, and other outlets, and as a correspondent he quickly earned the respect of the Free Syrian Army fighters. Tice is also the oldest of seven children of Marc and Debra Tice, a Houston, Texas, couple trying to find information about their son's whereabouts and secure his release.

In Syria:

Tice, 31, was one of the few foreign journalists to report from Damascus after putting his law studies on hold and arriving in the war-torn country in May. Christina Arnold, a friend of Austin’s, told me that “he couldn’t stand to see what’s going on with the children” falling victim to the fighting in Syria. “That was his main purpose in going over there," she said. He knew some basic Arabic, but not enough to carry on a full conversation, and traveled with a trusted translator. “Spent the day at an FSA pool party with music by @taylorswift13. …Hands down, best birthday ever,” reads Austin’s last tweet, on Aug. 11. Two days later, he said goodbye to his translator and left for the Lebanon border (he had crossed into Syria via Turkey).

The video:

On Sept. 26, a video titled “Austin Tice still alive” was posted on a pro-Assad website. Foreign policy experts and Syrian natives alike agreed that everything from the poor production quality to the costumes and chants seemed staged to look like al-Qaeda-style jihadists, calling out “God is great” while leading a blindfolded Tice up a hill. Tice stammers an Arabic prayer followed by, “Oh Jesus, oh Jesus.” The video ends abruptly. While Islamist terror groups have been trying to take advantage of the insecurity on the ground in Syria -- and offer help to the resistance where the international community has not -- there would have likely been more concrete claims of responsibility and/or demands if the video was not staged. Plus, most groups have put a premium on high production quality in recent years, such as the As-Sahab media wing of al-Qaeda. Reportedly, the prayer Tice was made to recite is a stock prayer for martyrs. So the evidence points toward a staged video. “We’ve seen the video. We are not in a position to verify whether it’s him, whether it represents an actual scene that happened or something that may have been staged,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said on Oct. 1. “There’s a lot of reason for the Syrian government to duck responsibility, but we continue to believe that, to the best of our knowledge, we think he is in Syrian government custody.” Tice's family and friends are convinced it's Austin in the video. “I couldn’t even breathe when I saw that video,” Arnold said. “It’s definitely him.”

The clues:

The Syrian regime has denied any involvement in Austin’s capture. But those in the know are suspicious. “I think the Assad regime thinks Austin is a high-value asset that can be traded for some concessions,” one Syrian opposition source told me. “…The fact they staged the video is a signal that they want to use him but without the PR burden of being associated with his kidnapping. To go through this means they value Austin.” A Syrian general who defected early this year and now leads rebel forces told me that if Austin had been captured by opposition forces, even Salafists, “he would be in the United States.” “There is no way any opposition party would keep or capture any American journalist,” he said. “We would have known immediately. I know this with no ifs, ands, or buts.” The general said Austin’s route from Darayya to the Lebanon border left him vulnerable to fall into the hands of Assad loyalists with close ties to Hezbollah. “I can assure you of one thing: I can say he’s safe. I can assure the family he’s safe,” the general said. “I’m pretty sure he’s not in Syria.” Austin could possibly be in a Hezbollah stronghold in Lebanon, he added, completely hidden from anyone who would betray his location. “They’re going to keep him as a card for the future,” he continued. “No way they will think about executing him. He is going to be safe until the time comes and he is played as a card.”

Finding Austin:

Half the battle is getting requisite attention for Austin’s case. The State Department simply told me that there’s “nothing new to add.” Tice's parents spent the days before Thanksgiving in Beirut, talking to media at the local press club about how to find their son. “We have all felt a terrible void in this prolonged silence,” Debra Tice told the Lebanese media. “With the approaching holiday season we are even more dismayed by the empty chair at our family table.” They've also traveled to Washington in an effort to lobby the State Department and lawmakers to help with the case.

How to help:

Help get the word out! Arnold started the Free Austin Tice accounts on Twitter and Facebook and a Change.org petition calling for his release. (The Tice family has set up a website, www.austinticefamily.com. Tips about Austin’s case can be sent to information@austinticefamily.com or to About World News.)
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