Bashar Al-Assad
Bashar Al-AssadReuters

A White House official traveled to Damascus earlier this year for secret meetings with the Syrian government seeking the release of at least two US citizens thought to be held there, a Trump administration official said on Sunday, according to Reuters.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, named the official as Kash Patel, a deputy assistant to President Donald 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 Wall Street Journal report, which cited Trump administration officials and others familiar with the negotiations, described Patel’s trip as the first time such a high-level US official had met in Syria with the isolated government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in more than a decade.

The newspaper 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 government checkpoint in 2017.

At least four other Americans are believed to be held by the Syrian government but little is known about those cases, according to the report.

According to the Wall Street Journal report, Trump wrote Assad a private letter in March, proposing a “direct dialogue” about Tice.

The report further said that Lebanon’s top security chief, Abbas Ibrahim, met last week at the White House with national security adviser Robert O’Brien to discuss the Americans held in Syria. However, the talks have not gotten very far, as Damascus has repeatedly demanded Washington withdraw all its forces from the country.

Syria erupted into a civil war after Assad in 2011 began a crackdown on protesters calling for an end to his family’s rule.

Since then, the Syrian President has repeatedly rejected ties with the United States and other countries that support Syrian rebels, whom he calls “terrorists”.

Syria's government refers to all those who oppose it as "terrorists", including both jihadist rebels as well as rebels considered by the West to be “moderate”.

The United States and most European countries shut their embassies in Damascus after the government's bloody crackdown on protests.

Assad receives backing from Russia and Iran in his fight against rebels trying to oust him.