President Donald Trump wanted to negotiate with Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad for American hostages, but the Syrians refused to talk—which U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former National Security Advisor John Bolton considered a win, according to Bolton.
One of the Trump administration’s most successful diplomatic initiatives has been hostage exchanges. Trump has secured the release of Americans held in North Korea and Iran.
Pompeo and Bolton, however, thought that Trump’s desire for a hostage exchange with Syria was “undesirable,” Bolton wrote in his upcoming book, The Room Where It Happened, which was obtained in advance by the National Interest.
Trump wanted to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria in early 2019, causing his officials to scramble in an attempt to prevent a war between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds. Meanwhile, Bolton was trying to keep several hundred troops in the country to fight Assad and his Iranian allies.
“All these negotiations about our role in Syria were complicated by Trump’s constant desire to call Assad on U.S. hostages,” Bolton wrote. “Fortunately, Syria saved Trump from himself, refusing to even to talk Pompeo about them.”
The President flew into a rage when he heard the Syrian negotiators’ response.
“You tell [them] he will get hit hard if they don’t give us our hostages back, so fucking hard. You tell him that,” Trump shouted. “We want them back within one week of today, or they will never forget how hard we’ll hit them.”
Trump has not yet acted on his threat to attack Syria to rescue the hostages.
The State Department did not respond to a request for comment, but Pompeo has called Bolton’s book a collection of “lies, fully-spun half-truths, and outright falsehoods.”
The U.S. government does not publicize the number of Americans held hostage abroad, out of a concern for their safety. But a number of Americans are believed to be captive in Syria.
Freelance journalist Austin Tice was kidnapped in 2012. U.S. officials believe he is being held by the Syrian government, and Trump has publicly appealed to Syria for his release.
Syrian-American psychotherapist Majd Kamalmaz disappeared in Syria in 2017. His family says that he was in a Syrian prison at one point. Kamalmaz’s current whereabouts are unknown.
Rob Saale, who led the FBI’s U.S. Hostage Fusion Cell until late 2018, confirmed that there were attempts at contacting the Syrian government, but that the broader war got in the way.
“You’re working towards trying to get some kind of a dialogue going, and then the Syrians would do something like launch a chemical strike on their own people, and we would launch an airstrike or a cruise missile strike in response,” said Saale. “Then we’re not even back to square one. We have to start all over again to re-establish that dialogue.”
If Bolton was against the prisoner negotiations, he didn’t show it.
Saale said that the former national security advisor was always “supportive of getting hostages home.” So did Mickey Bergman and former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, who worked to free two American prisoners in Iran.
Bergman added that Bolton “encouraged us to pursue the conversations, even though we knew he did not like any engagement with” Iran.
Richardson and Saale also said that Bolton was likely to be a reliable narrator.
“I don’t doubt the veracity of Bolton’s claims,” Richardson said. “I worked with Bolton on Iran prisoner issues, and he was always straight with me.”
None of them spoke to Pompeo’s personal involvement, positive or negative.
“I wish there would be some sort of dialogue, because Austin Tice is coming up on his eighth year being there,” Saale added.