Chomsky on Syria

If you’re interested in the continuing horror of the Syrian civil war, don’t miss the interview published the other day that Noam Chomsky gave to the Heinrich Böll foundation in Beirut last month (reported also in the New Republic).

I’ve never been a big Chomsky fan; although we’re both anarchists, he and I come from rather different places philosophically. But what he says here is extremely sensible. Although he is critical of American policy, he emphatically rejects the idea that “everything that takes place can be explained in terms of imperialist conspiracies.” Instead he’s at pains to understand Syria in its own terms:

What happened in Syria is not outside our understanding: it began as a popular and democratic protest movement demanding democratic reforms, but instead of responding to it in a constructive, positive manner, Assad reacted with violent repression. The usual outcome of such a course of action is either a successful crushing of the protests or otherwise, to see them evolve and militarize, and this is what took place in Syria.

As a result, he is appropriately dismissive of the suggestion that the Syrians had the option of non-violent resistance:

I don’t think the Syrians made a choice. 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 accept still more massacres. It’s not a serious critique.

So what to do? Chomsky is pessimistic about the outcome either way, but he suggests that a peace conference should be given a chance to work before western countries arm the Syrian opposition:

The small hope (albeit a weak one) centres around negotiations with Assad’s supporters—Russia especially—doing what they claim they will do, and compelling Assad to accept being part of a transitional government with limited powers in preparation, paving the way for his departure. A slender hope perhaps, but not impossible.

If peace talks fail, however, he seems open to other measures: “Neither option is ideal, but once again, you have to think about what you have. I believe you should choose the negotiating track first, and should you fail, then moving to the second option [i.e. supplying arms] becomes more acceptable.”

Unfortunately, no-one much seems to be listening. The Chomsky interview was four weeks ago and the blood continues to flow in Syria. Opposition forces are fighting each other as well as the regime, priceless historical treasures are threatened as well as lives, and the violence is doing more and more to destabilise neighboring countries. Chomsky sees “only a slim chance of success” for a negotiated peace, and I fear he is probably right.


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