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How Mike Pompeo painted the US into a corner on Syria

An unforced error by Trump’s incoming secretary of state may have removed even the meagre possibility of a meaningful response to Assad’s atrocities.

The acting US secretary of state, John J Sullivan, is a temp. He was sworn in, aptly, on April Fools Day, after his predecessor Rex Tillerson was ignominiously fired as America’s chief diplomat – a job once held by Thomas Jefferson – while on the toilet in March.

Even as Trump rhetorically careened towards a possible military standoff with Russia, his nominee for a permanent replacement for Tillerson, CIA director Mike Pompeo, was before the US Senate for his confirmation hearings. While there, he managed to slip up so royally that it may have nixed any chance of a real, effective response in Syria.

In response to an open-ended question on Friday about the relationship between the US and Russia, Pompeo, seemingly unprompted, dropped a bombshell admission. “In Syria, a handful of weeks ago, the Russians met their match,” the former Kansas Republican said, adding in a boastful tone that “a couple hundred Russians were killed.”

He was referring to a clash in February. The facts of the event were already known, but it had not been officially confirmed by US authorities, so Pompeo mentioning it in the Senate was a pretty big deal. Pro-Putin sites like Sputnik and Russia Today feasted upon the morsel of outrage, reflecting that the admission, especially the casual nature in which it was made, was likely a bigger deal in Russia than was clear at the time.

It was an unforced error that potentially inflamed tensions with Russia at the worst possible time, making deciding how to respond to the chemical weapons attack last week in Ghouta much more more complex and fraught. In one of the bizarre paradoxes of international diplomacy, the admission strengthened Putin’s hand and may even have forced the Pentagon to weaken their response in order to allow him to save face.

In 2013, I wrote for this magazine that:

“The rhetoric has been that Assad must be ‘punished’ for the use of chemical weapons, but why? The tools used to reach this number are immaterial in the face of that horror. Who cares whether people were killed with shells, mortar or gas?

The truth is that evening the odds in Syria – which the West has already been doing, by drip-feeding supplies and weaponry to rebel forces – has turned a brief if bloody resolution into an interminable meat-grinder, in which no side has the decisive edge, and flattening out some more of Assad’s tactical advantages will only maintain this grisly status quo.”

Well, that grisly status quo is four years older, but otherwise unchanged – except that even the meagre hope for a resolution that lingered even in 2013 is now clearly dead, along with more than 500,000 civilians estimated to have lost their lives since the Syrian uprising began at the tail end of the Arab Spring.

Millions more have been displaced since the conflict began, triggering a global refugee crisis that Western governments, with the solitary admirable exception of Germany, have failed to address. The UK and US are clearly happy to drop bombs on Syria, but not to offer shelter or asylum to the people these actions displace.

General Joseph Dunford, chair of the US joint chiefs of staff, engaged in some verbal jujitsu on Friday night when the strikes were announced, saying “we did not do any coordination with the Russians on the strikes, nor did we pre-notify them,” but adding that the US had “specifically identified these targets to mitigate the risk of Russian forces being involved.”

But Dunford continued that the Pentagon had used “deconfliction channels” throughout the week to “work through the airspace issues and so forth.” That channel has been referred to as a “hotline” between US and UK authorities and the Kremlin, designed to avoid the risk of an escalation of hostilities that could lead to a clash of nuclear arms.

In short: this was all political theatre. The Russians were not formally notified, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t know where the strikes were coming. Trump got to save face and temporarily shift attention away from the domestic chaos that has enveloped his White House, tweeting “Mission Accomplished!” on Saturday, without apparent cognisance of the historical hubris linked with that particular phrase.

Despite the heated rhetoric from Moscow, Putin also got to save face. No Russians appear to have been harmed by the strike, and despite the Pentagon’s contradicting statements it is unlikely that they were not aware to at least some extent of the planned targets.

Ultimately Assad, having finally received the “punishment” that Obama declined to give in 2013 when he first crossed the “red line” of massacring civilians using chemical weapons instead of conventional ones, will now be allowed to go back to butchering his people unmolested. In fact, in the early hours of Sunday morning, just 24 hours after the air strikes against them by the combined might of the American, British and French air forces, the Syrian army announced that it had retaken Eastern Ghouta.

The word they used was “liberated”, but what they mean is they reduced it to rubble.

Nicky Woolf is the editor of New Statesman America. He has formerly written for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.