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Chomsky and the Syria revisionists: The Left's moral cul-de-sac Open in fullscreen

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad

Chomsky and the Syria revisionists: The Left's moral cul-de-sac

Residents of Khan Sheikhun protest against a regime chemical weapons attack, 7 April 2017 [AFP]

Date of publication: 5 May, 2017

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Comment: In Chomsky's hierarchy of concerns, it seems a westerner's right to deny genocide is more sacrosanct than a Syrian's right to life and liberty, writes Muhammad Idrees Ahmad.

This is Part II of a two-part article examining Chomsky and the Left's relationship with Syria. Read part I here.


The paradox of Chomskyian contrarianism is that because it is a bundle of reflexes whose primary stimulus is domestic politics, it sees retreat from principle as less problematic than a lapse in adversarial posturing.

Chomsky is not the worst offender on the Left; indeed, until August 2013, he even sounded sympathetic to the Syrian uprising. It was the massacre of over 1,400 people in a horrific sarin attack in August 2013 that ironically marked the deterioration in Chomsky's position.

Now that Barack Obama and John Kerry were on TV inviting public sympathy for the victims, there was nothing radical about standing with the oppressed. In his first appearance on TV after the attack, Chomsky mocked Obama's appeal to the public. Why, he asked, weren't we looking at "the photos of deformed fetuses in Saigon hospitals still appearing decades after John F. Kennedy launched a major chemical warfare attack against South Vietnam, 1961?"

Such whataboutism is as old as Chomky's references.

Perhaps conscious of the spurious factual basis for his argument, in his second intervention on the sarin attack, Chomsky turned to deductive logic. "It's not so obvious why the Assad regime would have carried out a chemical warfare attack at a moment when it's pretty much winning the war", he said. If Chomsky finds this not so obvious, then it must be obvious to Chomsky why the Assad regime would bomb hospitals, napalm schools, torture children and starve entire cities.

(The contention that the regime is "pretty much winning the war" is also doubtful. The regime is actually unlikely to win the war. It has been winning battles with the help of the Russian Air Force, but it can't hold territory without Hizballah, Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani militias.)

Chomsky has been able to argue without any sense of irony that that US involvement in Syria amounts to 'imperialism' while the Russian military intervention doesn't

Deductive logic more rigorously applied should of course have led Chomsky to also consider that if Postol's theory is correct, then the OPCW, Human Rights Watch, World Health Organisation, Medecins Sans Frontieres, the US government, the British government, the French Government, The Guardian, The Times and the AFP's judgment is incorrect.

And since they all appear to have reached the same conclusion, there must be coordination among them. But according to Chomsky's logic, this scenario is more plausible than the notion that Assad - with his pattern of chemical attacks - might have carried out another.  

He finds more plausible that rebels would go through the trouble of producing sarin only to use it on their own people, twice! To quote journalist Anand Gopal's response: "that's on the level of Big Foot or UFOs." 

To his credit, Chomsky has not been shy to denounce Assad and Putin

In the years since August 2013, Chomsky has said little about Syria. And to the extent he has, his silences have been more appreciated. Speaking at Harvard in September 2015, Chomsky scolded a Syrian doctor for asking if the US should intervene to protect Syrian civilians. "If you attack Assad, you are undermining resistance to the Islamic State and al-Nusra, who'll then take over," he said: "Is that what you want for Syria?"

Elsewhere he criticized the "meaningless" US strategy because it wasn't supporting the forces that "are really combatting ISIS": "Iran, PKK, and the Assad regime". In an appearance on UK's Channel 4 News, he claimed IS was now "almost a representative of a large part of Sunni Islam". And where was Chomsky getting all these insights? "One of the main commentators on the region… one who's been most informed and accurate: Patrick Cockburn."

Read more: Pity the Fisk

I wrote to Chomsky to explain that over 90 percent of the Assad regime's military engagements until then had been against Assad's anti-IS opposition, and when citizens in Maarat al Nu'man rose up against al-Nusra, the regime actually bombed the citizens; the Obama administration had been cooperating with Iran politically and militarily since summer 2014 and it had launched over 700 US airstrikes to help the PKK-affiliated YPG break the siege of Kobane; and far from IS representing "a large part of Sunni Islam", surveys showed that it had little support even in major Sunni states like Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

I suggested that perhaps he shouldn't outsource his Syria analysis to regime-friendly journalists like Patrick Cockburn, who has advised the British government to provide military support to the Assad regime - a regime the UN has accused of the "crime of extermination".

But far from abandoning Cockburn, Chomsky has drawn on him as an authority to impugn journalists reporting from under the regime's bombs in rebel-held territories. "If reporters go into the rebel-held areas and don't do what they're told," he told his Cambridge audience, "you get your head cut off".

Accountability to Chomsky is an alien concept

This would come as news to Clarissa Ward of CNN, Nagieb Khaja of Al Jazeera, and Kareem Shaheen of The Guardian, whose heads are decidedly intact after reporting from rebel-held areas without compromising their independence. (Chomsky of course doesn't even acknowledge the existence of Syrian civil society, intellectuals, activists or heroic journalists like those associated with Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently or Enab Baladi).

Reporting from rebel-held areas is indeed not easy or without risk: After all the war has caused a complete collapse of law and order. But the main difficultly (as during the siege of Aleppo) is that the regime denies journalists access and - to the extent that they are able to bypass its strictures - they face the threat of its indiscriminate bombs.

Such details become academic, however, when ideological commitment makes factual accuracy superfluous. Chomsky has been able to argue without any sense of irony that that US involvement in Syria amounts to "imperialism" while the Russian military intervention doesn't.

In these ideological battles the world is a mere proxy and truth a dispensable artefact

Russia, he says, was invited by the Syrian government. I asked him if this means the US intervention in Vietnam was also not imperialism since the US was invited by the South Vietnamese government. That was different, he replied, because the South Vietnamese government was installed by the US. So it wasn't a legitimate government: Does he believe the Assad government is more legitimate? I said nothing about legitimacy, he replied. And so it went.

To his credit, Chomsky has not been shy to denounce Assad and Putin. This would be meaningful if the inevitable "but" didn't follow, and blame wasn't shifted onto Assad's opponents and their backers. In the past two years Chomsky has ignored years of Russian obstructionism at the UN and elevated a dubious report about an alleged Russian peace offer in 2012 to cast the US, Britain and France as the intransigent parties.

But the plan that the former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari claims was conveyed to him by Russia's UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin on 22 February 2012 was actually the Arab League initiative of 22 January 2012, which was part of the UN resolution that Churkin vetoed on 4 February 2012, even after all his amendments to the first draft were accepted.

Accountability to Chomsky is an alien concept. He doesn't seek it for genocidaires; nor does he approve of it for propagandists for genocidaires. The man who has remained mostly silent in the face of Assad and Putin's colossal crimes was quick to join a campaign, led by several pro-Assad ideologues, to pressure students who had disinvited a pro-Assad blogger from an event devoted to Palestinian rights.

This is not the first time this kind of campism has led large sections of the western Left down a moral cul-de-sac

He signed an open letter that referred to the blogger's apologia for Assad's "crime of extermination" (UN) (and her record of fabrication) as a "political difference". 

In Chomsky's hierarchy of concerns, it seems a westerner's right to deny genocide is more sacrosanct than a Syrian's right to life and liberty. Chomsky lives in a country where dissent is protected by law, and, in his case, rewarded with stardom and publishing contracts.

This is why he can't relate to dissidents abroad - unless they are fortunate enough to be persecuted by a US client - who at great personal cost fight for basic rights. In these ideological battles the world is a mere proxy and truth a dispensable artefact. Its dehumanising binaries erase struggling peoples if the regime oppressing them is seen as an objective ally by virtue of being in the bad books of Washington.

This is not the first time this kind of campism has led large sections of the western Left down a moral cul-de-sac. But few could have predicted that the figure leading this sordid procession one day would be the sage many of us once worshipped.

This is Part II of a two-part article examining Chomsky and the Left's relationship with Syria. Read part I here.

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad is a lecturer in digital journalism at the University of Stirling. He is the author of The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War, and is currently writing a book on the war of narratives over Syria.

Follow him on Twitter: @im_PULSE

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff

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