Chomsky and the Syria revisionists: Regime whitewashing

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad writes: Early on the morning of Tuesday 4 April when General Mohammed Hasouri of Syria’s Air Force Brigade 50 prepared his Sukhoi Su-22 for take-off, he may not have known that in the age of satellites and smartphones, crucial details of his flight would be recorded.

The jet’s communications were intercepted by Syria Sentry spotters when, using the call-sign “Quds-1”, it lifted off from al-Shayrat airbase at 6:26 am local time; CentCom recorded its flight path on its bombing run over the Idlib countryside; and, 12 minutes later, when it delivered its lethal payload on the town of Khan Sheikhoun, multiple witnesses reported the strike, posting videos online (which have since been verified and geo-located.)

A comprehensive Human Rights Watch report has since confirmed that the regime was responsible for this and at least three other chemical attacks since December as “part of a broader pattern of Syrian government forces’ use of chemical weapons“.

The attack killed 92 people and injured many more. The World Health Organisation (WHO) and Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) found the symptoms consistent with exposure to a nerve agent; the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) found “incontrovertible” evidence that the agent used was sarin; and, after testing samples of the chemical agent, the French government concluded that the attack was perpetrated by the “Syrian armed forces and security services“.

The Assad regime and Russia responded predictably. They made mutually contradictory claims (Assad: the deaths were staged; Russia: rebels caused the deaths). They were quickly debunked. But after the US government launched 59 Tomahawk missiles on the airbase as a punitive measure, a different formation joined the battle.

The US missile strike was symbolic; it had little effect on Assad’s military capability. But it did stir the “anti-imperialist” Left out of its somnolent unconcern for Syrian lives. Syrians were now proxies in a domestic battle and the “anti-imperialists” had finally found a Syrian life that mattered: Bashar al Assad’s. If the US government was acknowledging that the evidence for Assad’s responsibility was overwhelming, then Assad had to be protected and doubt manufactured.

By April 13, when the noted linguist and contrarian Noam Chomsky took the podium at UMass Amherst, substantial evidence had gathered to implicate Assad in the attack.

Chomsky, however, insisted that, “actually we don’t [know what happened]”. To justify his claim, Chomsky deferred to the authority of Theodore Postol, whom he called “one of the most sophisticated and successful analysts of military strategic issues”. Postol, he said, has gone through the White House Intelligence Report “in detail” and “just tears it to shreds”.

Ten days later, in Cambridge, Chomsky resumed. He again cited Postol, “a very serious and credible analyst… highly regarded”, who has “analyzed closely” and given “a pretty devastating critique of the White House report”.

If Chomsky’s praise for Postol seems suspiciously over the top, there is a reason for it. In an email exchange in the ten days between his two appearances, I had explained to Chomsky that far from being “a very serious and credible analyst”, Postol has a reputation for dabbling in zany conspiracism.

By this time, enough evidence had gathered from multiple independent sources to leave little doubt about Assad’s responsibility. But using the method of a climate change-denier, Chomsky elevated one madcap scientist’s theories to dismiss all extant evidence. [Continue reading…]

In part two of this article, Muhammad Idrees Ahmad writes: 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. [Continue reading…]

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