Amer Fakhoury, Austin Tice and the Iranian-Syrian hostage game

Regardless of how this hostage game ends, Iran and the Assad regime will have lost another human shield.
Sunday 29/03/2020
A 2018 file photo shows Marc and Debra Tice, parents of US journalist Austin Tice, who was abducted in Syria in August 2012, giving a news conference in Beirut. (AFP)
Hostage game. A 2018 file photo shows Marc and Debra Tice, parents of US journalist Austin Tice, who was abducted in Syria in August 2012, giving a news conference in Beirut. (AFP)

The Lebanese were surprised recently to see a US Marine Corps aircraft land at the US Embassy north-east of Beirut before returning to its base in Cyprus. On the aircraft was the “Butcher of Khiam,” Amer Fakhoury, the infamous former warden of Khiam Prison, which was run by the South Lebanon Army during the Israeli occupation of Lebanon.

As a senior officer in the South Lebanon Army, a militia that collaborated with the Israeli occupation, Fakhoury was accused of torturing and killing a number of Lebanese prisoners before fleeing to the United States and opening a Lebanese restaurant in Dover, New Hampshire, and acquiring US nationality.

Despite staying away for more than 19 years, Fakhoury returned to Lebanon last September after making sure, through his political acquaintances, that he would be immune from prosecution — or so he believed.

Shortly after entering Lebanon, Fakhoury was summoned by Lebanese Army intelligence and detained until a military tribunal dropped charges against him, claiming that the 10-year statute of limitations had elapsed.

The political storm that followed Fakhoury’s theatrical escape was mainly directed towards the Free Patriotic Movement and Hezbollah, which are believed to have brokered the deal that secured his release. The Free Patriotic Movement and its leader Gebran Bassil, Lebanese President Michel Aoun’s son-in-law, used Fakhoury to try to win the favour of the Trump administration, something that seemed to work.

On the same day as Fakhoury’s release, US President Donald Trump announced: “Today we are bringing home another American citizen… He is battling late-stage cancer. I am very grateful to the Lebanese government.”

Trump, in fact, was also thanking Hezbollah, which holds the biggest sway over the Lebanese government and thus implicating Hezbollah in collaborating to release Fakhoury, who theoretically is the antithesis of the Iranian-militia’s so-called resistance credo.

Faced with this public relations crisis, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah responded to allegations of collaboration by saying that he, like many other Lebanese, only heard about Fakhoury’s escape “on television and then made calls to inquire about it” and that his party had no role to play in Fakhoury’s release.

Nasrallah’s implausible and somewhat insulting defence exposes the willingness of all sides involved to compromise on their seemingly ideological stand and allow backdoor diplomacy to fix a volatile and extremely thorny relationship. From the side of Iran and Hezbollah, Fakhoury was a precious hostage whom they kept stored away until the time was right to allow his ransom.

Trump wishes to buttress the image he likes to maintain as a strong president who is willing to go all the way to protect his country and its people. That Trump is also heading towards an election campaign makes Fakhoury’s “liberation” more valuable and worthy of political backlash.

Iran, which has a long and illustrious record of using American refugees as bargaining chips, turned this criminal act into an art in itself. The recent situation is a case in point.

Conveniently, Iran did not only offer Fakhoury but simultaneously released Michael White, a US Navy veteran and cancer patient who had been detained in Tehran since July 2018.

If the return of Fakhoury and White were not enough, Iran dangled the possibility of the return of Austin Tice, an abducted American freelance journalist who went missing in Syria in August 2012.

Tice’s location remains unknown but it is believed he is being held by the Syrian regime, which, like its Iranian allies, is proficient in the hostage game.

While the Assad regime has repeatedly denied keeping him, Tice is a possible future way for Syrian President Bashar Assad to break years of isolation and get the Americans to send a senior official to Damascus for a much-needed photo opportunity. Naturally for Assad this public relations stunt would be linked to some form of financial incentives that the Trump administration would creatively provide.

Most of the willingness of Trump to go with this deal stems from the fact that national security adviser Robert O’Brien served as special presidential envoy for hostage affairs in 2018 and knows what it takes to bring America’s captives home.

Regardless of how this hostage game ends, if and when Tice makes its back to his family in Texas safe and sound, Iran and the Assad regime will have lost another human shield to use to prolong its lifespan and to survive these turbulent times.

Yet, what the hostage game also proves is the limitation of Iran’s transactional state of mind that also impedes it from crossing into the realm of countries that abandon violence as the only way of doing business.