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Syrian President Bashar Al Assad in 2019. Image Credit: AFP

A top White House official went to Damascus this summer to negotiate the release of two American hostages, according to two people familiar with the matter, a rare sign of diplomacy between the US and Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s regime.

Kash Patel, a top White House counter-terrorism official, met with an undisclosed Syrian official to discuss the release of American journalist Austin Tice, who was abducted eight years ago while on assignment in Syria, and Syrian-American therapist Majd Kamalmaz, who disappeared in 2017 after being stopped at a government checkpoint.

The talks — reported earlier by the Wall Street Journal — come as the US tries to force Al Assad’s regime to negotiate an end to the ongoing civil war and are a part of the Trump administration’s broader push to wind down some troop deployments in the Middle East.

Since taking office in 2017, President Donald Trump has twice launched military strikes on Al Assad’s regime in response to the use of chemical weapons. Nevertheless, Trump said in March that the US was working with Syria to secure Tice’s release, and the president has touted his record of negotiating the return of American hostages at recent campaign rallies.