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Biden accused of dragging feet over Americans held hostage overseas

Family of Majd Kamalmaz, who has been held by the Syrian government for more than four years, say their case has lost momentum since the Democrat took office
Majd Kamalmaz was detained at a checkpoint in Damascus in 2017, less than 24 hours after arriving in the country (Courtesy of Maryam Kamalmaz)
By Umar A Farooq in Washington

US President Joe Biden has been accused of dragging his feet over the fate of Americans held hostage or unlawfully detained abroad, with one family now pinning their hopes on Congress to secure the release of their loved one.

The family of Syrian-American psychotherapist Majd Kamalmaz told Middle East Eye that they hoped Congress would take up their case after a task force was established earlier this month to address Americans detained overseas.

Kamalmaz, 63, is among roughly half a dozen US citizens believed to be held by the Syrian government or forces allied with Damascus. 

Last October, the Trump administration sent two officials to Syria for secret meetings with the government of President Bashar al-Assad. The meetings were aimed at securing the release of Kamalmaz and American journalist Austin Tice, who disappeared in Syria in 2012.

Majd Kamalmaz spent years working on treating people suffering from traumatic events (Courtesy of Maryam Kamalmaz)
Before his disappearance, Majd Kamalmaz had traveled the world offering free trauma therapy (Courtesy of Maryam Kamalmaz)

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Trump had made freeing Americans held overseas a personal priority, with his administration helping secure the release of several prisoners and hostages, including Aya Hijazi, an Egyptian-American aid worker held in Cairo; Joshua Holt, a Mormon missionary who was jailed in Venezuela; and Andrew Brunson, an American pastor who was held at a Turkish prison for two years.

"It seems that the Biden administration does not consider Syria to be on the top of their list [of priorities] at this time," Kamalmaz's daughter Maryam told MEE.

"We don't see much effort towards trying to secure the hostages. We hoped they would continue with [the Trump administration's] momentum, but unfortunately, it died off. We don't see anything happening and it's been very heartbreaking."

According to the Wall Street Journal, at least four other Americans are also believed to be held hostage in Syria, but little is known about those cases.

Last week, congressmen Ted Deutch and French Hill announced the creation of the Congressional Task Force on American Hostages and Americans Wrongfully Detained Abroad, which aims to create a streamlined process for families to seek assistance from the federal government.

"I hope that in this administration, President Biden will use his leverage to open Assad's jails," Hill said during a press conference announcing the inception of the task force.

Maryam said congressional pressure could help the administration "wake up and realise there are human beings that are suffering".

"We need them [the administration] to care and do something because I think they don't get it".

'Everyone deserves to come home'

The war in Syria, now in its tenth year, has devastated much of the country. More than 388,000 people have been killed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and millions have been forced to flee to neighbouring countries.

Since taking office, the Biden administration has issued inconsistent policies towards Damascus, such as ordering air strikes against Iran-backed groups in the country and lifting sanctions on entities tied to the Assad government.

James Jeffrey, chair of the Wilson's Center's Middle East programme and former US envoy for Syria engagement, accused the administration last week of lacking focus concerning the war-ravaged country.

"The administration is trying to avoid getting deeply involved in an overall policy towards Syria," he said during a panel hosted by the Wilson Center.

As the US pivots towards the Indo-Pacific region and confronts China over human rights abuses and territorial expansion, the administration's main focus in the Middle East has been negotiating a return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

"The administration is trying to avoid getting deeply involved in an overall policy towards Syria, that's understandable given the fate of the earlier policies and the other things on their plate in Asia and elsewhere," Jeffrey added.

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A State Department spokesperson did not say whether the administration would consider direct engagement with the Syrian government to free the missing Americans, telling MEE that Washington was working to release "Kamalmaz and every US citizen held hostage in Syria.

"Together, we work every day to bring Mr Kamalmaz and all US hostages and wrongful detainees home," the spokesperson said, adding that the department "cannot comment on the operational details of these efforts".

Kamalmaz travelled to Syria from Lebanon in 2017 where he was scheduled to visit relatives for no more than a few days.

According to his family, he was stopped at a government checkpoint in Damascus less than 24 hours after arriving in Syria. That was the last time his family has heard from him.

Before his disappearance, Kamalmaz had travelled the world offering free trauma therapy to survivors of the 2004 Indonesian tsunami, the war in Kosovo and Hurricane Katrina.

He had come to the Middle East to do the same for refugees from the country of his birth and had opened two clinics in Lebanon to treat refugees from the war in Syria.

Samar Hamwi, Kamalmaz's sister, said the task force's formation gave the family hope that Congress was doing all they could to bring their loved one home.

"My brother deserves to come home. Everyone deserves to come home," she said.

"Every second of every day of every year we're waiting and hoping, so hopefully now we have something to look forward to."

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