Bringing Brittney Griner home is a triumph. After 10 years, Austin Tice deserves as much

Fort Worth Star-Telegram/TNS

The release of American basketball star Brittney Griner from a Russian penal colony after over nine months of wrongful detention Thursday came as an immeasurable relief for her family and country. It also brought renewed concern about the apparently more difficult case of Paul Whelan, a former Marine held hostage in Russia for nearly four years and ultimately excluded from the prisoner swap that freed Griner.

The Biden administration’s success in releasing Griner also provides occasion to hope for and urge progress on liberating another former Marine held overseas for years — several more years than Whelan, unfortunately. Austin Tice was a 31-year-old veteran turned journalist covering the devastating Syrian civil war for McClatchy and others when he was abducted near Damascus in 2012. Last summer, his family and friends marked 10 years since his disappearance, which, of scores of Americans wrongly detained abroad, would make him the longest-suffering.

Tice’s family hailed Griner’s release Thursday while doubting whether administration officials had uniformly followed President Joe Biden’s directive to engage with Syrian officials. “If the U.S. government can work with Russia,” a family statement said, “there is no excuse for not directly engaging Syria.”

As Griner’s hard-won release and Whelan’s continued captivity show, each of these cases is as different from the next as it is distressing to the detained and their loved ones. But Tice’s courageous service to his country and to journalism, the opaque circumstances of his captivity, and the unfathomably long time elapsed since his disappearance should make his case a priority among priorities.

It must be acknowledged that it’s also among the most challenging. Biden has said with “certainty” that Tice has been in the custody of Syrian despot Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which presides over most of a war-wracked country with which the United States has no formal relations. Negotiating with Assad’s ally and fellow murderous dictator Vladimir Putin, whose government this year released not only Griner but also another former Marine, Trevor Reed, has been productive by comparison.

Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other officials in the administration, the third to have sought Tice’s whereabouts and release to no avail, maintain that they have engaged directly and indirectly with Assad’s regime on the missing reporter and will continue to do so. Calling Tice a “journalist who put the truth above himself,” Biden said in August, “We have repeatedly asked the government of Syria to work with us so that we can bring Austin home.” Blinken demanded that Assad’s government acknowledge his detention under international law, which it has so far failed to do, and said Roger Carstens, the hostage affairs envoy who accompanied Griner on her return to the United States Thursday, would continue to negotiate with the Syrians toward Tice’s release.

Debra Tice, Austin’s mother, has expressed frustration with the administration’s efforts but also told McClatchy she was cautiously optimistic after discussions with officials in Washington around the 10th anniversary of her son’s abduction, which brought about a renewed push from McClatchy and other media organizations for his release. In October, a Lebanese mediator told reporters that U.S.-Syrian talks on Tice were “complicated” but, more encouragingly, continuing.

The release of Griner, like Tice a Houston native, brought discordant carping from administration critics. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., marked the American’s homecoming by complaining about Whelan’s continued captivity and wrongly suggesting that the release of a Russian arms dealer was too high a price for Griner’s freedom. If anyone has a genuine right to be frustrated, it’s the Tice family, which nevertheless noted that “Every time an American is released from captivity abroad, it lifts our hearts in gladness for their family and loved ones. This is more evidence that where there is a will, there’s a way for the United States to secure the safe release and return of its unjustly held citizens.”

It’s in the same spirit of hope, empathy and urgency that we call on the administration to bring Tice home too.