Saturday, 6 May 2017

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

Chomsky and the Syria revisionists: Regime whitewashing

 Muhammad Idrees Ahmad:

'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.

 Framing it as a contest between the White House and a dissident scientist was useful because it allowed Chomsky to pass his denialism as legitimate scepticism. By shifting the focus from Assad to the White House, he was turning his attempt to exculpate a mass-murderer into a stand with David against Goliath.

 But there was nothing legitimate or principled about Chomsky's denialism. I asked him what he found persuasive about Postol's critique. After many evasions, he replied: "I said nothing about whether his report was persuasive". Why was Chomsky telling audiences to doubt Assad's responsibility, then? Because Postol is "a highly credible analyst", a fact recognised by all except "fanatics who have no concern for fact".

 One such fanatic however was quick to contradict Theodore Postol: Theodore Postol.

 In a frenzy of publishing in the weeks after the chemical massacre, Postol advanced multiple theories to deny Assad's responsibility for the attack:

 April 11: Postol claimed there was no aerial attack and that the rebels detonated a chemical weapon on the ground;

 April 13: Postol claimed the "the sarin release crater was tampered with"; the White House's 11 April Intelligence assessment, like the August 30, 2013, intelligence assessment, was a "false report";

 April 14: Postol claimed sarin could not have been used because video of health workers "roughly 30 hours after the alleged attack" shows them "inside and around the same crater with no protection of any kind against sarin poisoning" (sarin is actually a non-persistent agent that disperses quickly depending on the weather condition);

 April 19: Postol claimed that according to his analysis of wind direction "the alleged attack described in WHR never occurred";

 April 21: Postol says his "estimates of plume directions [were] exactly 180 degrees off" but insists this also proves the same thing;

 April 26: Postol says the Russian claim that the poisoning resulted from a rebel weapon depot being struck from air is plausible and, like Bhopal, the deaths likely occurred from the "combustion of plastics" (he cites the shape of the plumes from the bombing on the morning of 4 April as evidence, even though Russians claimed the bombing didn't happen until five hours later);

 April 27: Postol claims that the "French Intelligence Report of April 26, 2017 directly contradicts the White House Intelligence Report of 11 April, 2017"

 April 28: Postol admits that the French report does not contradict the White House report. He had confused the date and location for a different chemical attack four years earlier.

 Even as "Professor Postol" turned into a ubiquitous reference for the denialists, few noticed that his theories were mutually contradictory: He said it was an on-the-ground detonation - before calling it an aerial attack; he said there was no chemical attack - before calling it plastic combustion "like Bhopal"; he said the attack happened early in the morning - before suggesting that the shape of its plumes proved a Russian theory about a bombing five hours later; he said the wind was blowing southeast, proving the attack "never occurred" - before conceding the wind was blowing northwest, which apparently also proved the attack never occurred; he said the French in their assessment had directly contradicted the White House - before admitting that the French had actually supported the White House in their report, which was now "irrational" and "unsound".

 Postol's facts and analyses appear to change from day to day; but his conviction about Assad's innocence appeared unshakeable.

 Postol appeals to the denialists, not because his arguments are persuasive, as Chomsky's statement about them confirms; they like him because he is a man with credentials giving their conspiracy theories a veneer of scientific plausibility with superfluous tables and diagrams (like the wind direction charts which, by his own admission, were "exactly 180 degrees off").

 Some of the theories Postol scienced up had existed in cruder form on the internet since the day of the attack, debuted on the pro-Assad Al Masdar News by its editor Paul Antonopoulos (who has since been outed as a neo-Nazi) and on Alex Jones' Infowars by the pro-Assad YouTube star Mimi al Laham. Al Laham (aka Partisan Girl) has a history with Postol: In the past he has relied on her expertise ("a solid scientific source") to absolve the regime for its August 2013 chemical attack.

 In a joint appearance with al Laham on Holocaust denier Ryan Dawson's "Anti-Neocon Report" podcast, Postol explained why he found this social media personality with an undergraduate degree in chemistry a reliable scientific source: "I could see from her voice - I didn't know her and still don't know her - that she was a trained chemist."

 Postol's kamikaze act collapsed in embarrassment when, in his eagerness to contradict the White House, he confused the French government's analysis of an attack in April 2013 with its judgment on the Khan Sheikhoun four years later. The French report had mentioned the earlier attack as contextual detail.

 Postol interpreted this as the French providing a different location and delivery method for the attack. Next day he admitted his confusion, but even in the retraction, he confused the French discussion of the 2013 attack as the substance of the report and said responsibility for the latter 2017 couldn't be established solely on the basis of this (which is not what the French had done).

 Chomsky was not unaware of Postol's indiscretions when he spoke in Cambridge. But he didn't let such concerns get in the way of his contrarian posture. He could play dissident and wed his credibility to an unreliable source because in our intellectual culture you never pay a price for errors that are fatal only to others.

 Chomsky's reputation survived his endorsement of Gareth Porter's denialism in Cambodia; his reputation survived the endorsement of Diana Johnstone's denialism in Bosnia; and there is no reason his endorsement of Postol will affect his book sales or deny him public fora. (Nor have his endorsees been affected: Porter has disgraced himself again by blaming Syrian rescuers for the regime's attack on a UN convoy; and Johnstone is currently writing apologia for Marine Le Pen).

 But ideas have consequences. As I wrote elsewhere: "In a time of ongoing slaughter, to obfuscate the regime’s well-documented responsibility for a war crime does not just aid the regime today, it aids it tomorrow. As long as doubts remain about previous atrocities, there will be hesitancy to assign new blame. Accountability will be deferred." That was 2014. Little has changed.


 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.)

 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."

 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."

 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".

 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.

 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.

 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.'

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

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