Tuesday, September 10, 2013

What happened to Noam Chomsky on Syria?

[Originally posted at NOW]

It seems I owe Noam Chomsky a belated apology. In the days following his summer sojourn to Lebanon, I wrote a rather cross rebuke of his description of Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria as “understandable;” an adjective I thought (and still think) left slightly too much room for interpretation as an endorsement. At the time, some suggested he meant it more in the sense of ‘comprehensible,’ rather than ‘pardonable,’ to which I replied that the linguistics professor wouldn’t have been so evasive in denouncing, say, Saudi intervention in Bahrain.

I now learn, thanks to a subsequent interview dug up by Asaad AbuKhalil, that the optimists were right. Challenged by Syrian playwright Mohammed al-Attar specifically on the word “understandable,” Chomsky immediately backpedalled: “There’s a difference between understanding the reasons for intervening and excusing it. To be clear: nothing can justify Hezbollah’s involvement [in Syria].”

This is certainly strange talk from the man better known for defending Hezbollah’s right to command a private Islamist militia (a stance he iterated publicly after a friendly meeting with Nasrallah in 2006), and more generally lauding the Party of God as the darling of Lebanese secularism.

Indeed, the Attar interview reveals a transformation in Chomsky’s thinking on Syria in several respects. To see how, first rewind to March, when he was advocating straightforward anti-interventionism to The Guardian:

“I tend to think that providing arms is going to escalate the conflict. I think there has to be some kind of negotiated settlement.”

This seemingly remained his view when interviewed by The Daily Star on 14 June:

“The only slim hope that I can see is the Geneva-style negotiated solution […] Any kind of militarization is going to widen that conflict.”

And yet, only two days later, he was telling Attar that should Putin fail to undergo his long-awaited humanitarian epiphany, arming the opposition would only be the natural back-up plan:

“We all want to force Assad to the negotiating table and from there, to resign, but the question is how to achieve this? The first way to do this is to supply the opposition with arms […] The second approach is to go to Geneva with the cooperation of the major powers, including Russia, and force the regime to accept a truce […] I believe you should choose the negotiating track first, and should you fail, then moving to the second option becomes more acceptable.” [Italics added.]

Also remarkably, given the vitriol routinely heaped upon the rebels by the ‘Hands Off Syria’ crowd, the Professor actually spoke quite favorably of the opposition brigades, even comparing them to the victims of Vietnam:

“I don't think the Syrians made a choice [to arm]. It happened in the wake of the Assad regime’s repressive response. Syrians could either have surrendered or taken up arms. To blame them is akin to saying that the Vietnamese made a mistake responding by force when their US-backed government started committing massacres. Sure, the Vietnamese made a choice to arm themselves, but the alternative was [to] accept still more massacres.”

(Amusingly, this comparison infuriated AbuKhalil, who wrote last week of being “quite displeased” with Chomsky’s “woefully ill-informed” analysis, quite out of step with that of “real leftists” such as himself. Like a bad drunk revealing a repressed bigotry, AbuKhalil even lapsed into outright Assadism, scolding Chomsky for omitting to mention “the role of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar in forming armed militant groups […] prior to the eruption of the Syrian uprising.” It must have stung when, asked by Attar what to do with those for whom the whole rebellion is self-evidently an imperialist scam, Chomsky replied: “Just disregard them. They are insignificant.”)

To be clear, Chomsky isn’t about to start scheduling power breakfasts with John McCain. He said last week any military strike on the regime without UN authorization would constitute a “very serious war crime.” Yet it’s clear nonetheless that he’s breaking ranks with most of the pseudo-left on Syria overall, and it’s worth asking why.

One clue may lie in the otherwise-unreported meeting Chomsky had in Beirut, according to Attar, “with a group of independent Syrian media activists, aid workers and individuals active in cultural and economic spheres.” It’s fair to assume they were not discussing the glories of the October War.

Yet even before that, for more than a year there’s been a key divergence between Chomsky and most of his comrades regarding Israel’s view of Assad, and I think it’s this that’s been decisive. While the likes of Ibrahim al-Amin and George Galloway have championed Damascus as Zionism’s worst nightmare (and concurrently smeared the opposition as Likudniks with Qur’ans), Chomsky has seen through this pantomime, correctly noting that Tel Aviv was never as unhappy with Assad as all that, and certainly wouldn’t be thrilled to see what the IDF itself has called “the terrorists” running the show in his place.

Thus freed from the poisonous notion that the rights of Palestinians must be won through the enslavement of Syrians, Chomsky has had the sense to see both peoples as equal victims of oppressors who have a warmer history than either would like to admit.

No comments:

Post a Comment