Chomsky on Syria: Very good

July 12, 2013

In Blog


Noam Chomsky delivering the 2013 Edward Said Memorial Lecture

Noam Chomsky delivering the 2013 Edward Said Memorial Lecture

By Mohammad al-Attar, – 13 July 2013

Source: Heinrich Boll Stiftung

During his recent visit to Beirut, American thinker and philosopher Noam Chomsky met with a group of independent Syrian media activists, aid workers and individuals active in cultural and economic spheres. Chomsky had made it clear that he had come to listen to them; to lend an ear to their different views on the current situation in Syria.

Following the meeting I had the honour of holding an interview with him. At the outset of our discussion I stated that my motivation in talking with him was to encourage him to open up to Syrians, to address them directly with his evaluation of the situation in their country, following a series of interviews with Lebanese newspapers in which he had approached the subject through the filter of the papers’ own priorities and political biases. However Chomsky, now in his eighties, gently insisted that he was here to acquaint himself with the issue up close, rather than to offer fully formed conclusions of his own.

The discussion ranged over positions that Chomsky has subscribed to in previous interviews concerning his view of the complex situation in Syria, Hezbollah’s involvement, the American and Israeli stances towards revolutionary Syria and other related issues.

On Hezbollah’s involvement and Iranian policies

What is your view of Hezbollah’s undisguised involvement on the frontlines in Syria, in support of regime forces? You have made statements indicating that you can understand their intervention.

There’s a difference between understanding the reasons for intervening and excusing it. To be clear: nothing can justify Hezbollah’s involvement. If you were to ask me what they believe then I would give you my opinion of what it is they believe, but if you’re asking me what I think of their decision then it is my view, simply and plainly, that they didn’t have to intervene. But I am not their spiritual advisor and they didn’t ask for my advice.

Returning to my view of what they believe: If they had not intervened in al-Quseir then it would have remained in the hands of opposition fighters and that, of course, would have stood as an embodiment of the decline in the Syrian regime’s power and thus a restriction on the supplies reaching them from Iran. Furthermore, it would have symbolised the gradual decline of their military capacity in comparison to Israel, which represents their fundamental pretext for remaining armed. Once again, my choice—which is clearly not the choice they have chosen to make—would have been for non-intervention in Syria while working to bolster their role as an economic and social force inside Lebanon, thus approaching the concept of deterrent force from a different angle (a concept which, in my view, is not substantial in the way some still assume). Frankly, there is little attention being paid to what is going on inside Israel and that is a major error. There are claims being made that the 2006 war has taught Israelis that any future conflict in Lebanon should not be based on a drawn-out land battle with Hezbollah—which possesses a formidable arsenal of rockets—but rather as a rapid blitzkrieg-type assault aimed at total destruction… perhaps destroying Lebanon within two days. Hezbollah’s military deterrent would not stop this.

Do you believe in the possibility of any noticeable change in Iran’s foreign policy following Hassan Rohani’s election?

Rohani has a limited range of options given the authority of the Velayat-e Faqih, but it’s important to mention here that Iranian foreign policy has undergone some variations during the recent years. During Khatemi’s rule there was a chance to draw closer to the West, had the latter agreed to play along. And by the way, a similar agreement over the nuclear issue could have been realized in 2010 had the United States not rejected it at the last moment, despite Iran having agreed to a proposal made by Obama himself and seconded by Brazil and Turkey, which would have seen Iranian low-enriched uranium stored in Turkey in return for Iran receiving high-enriched uranium from Europe, a change of heart which angered Brazil at the time. Generally speaking, I believe there are avenues for reducing the severity of the confrontation between Iran and the West, but these are conditional on two factors: the buy-in of both the spiritual authorities in Iran and the US administration.

Is Iran using the Syrian situation as a trump card in its negotiations with the West over the nuclear issue?

I don’t think so. I really do believe that the Syrian crisis is a burden for them. Naturally, they don’t want the regime to fall: it’s their last ally in the region. Regrettably the region as a whole is moving towards an increasingly sharp polarisation between Shia and Sunni and so it is probable that Iran will continue to support the Syrian regime to the end.

Israel, the United States and attitudes towards the Syrian revolution

In your view, what is Israel’s true position regarding the Syrian revolution?

Israel has done nothing to indicate that it is trying to bring down the Assad regime. There are growing claims that the West intends to supply the opposition with arms. I believe this is quite misleading. The fact of the matter is that were the United States and Israel interested in bringing down the Syrian regime there is a whole package of measures they could take before they came to the arms-supply option. All these other options remain available, including, for example, America encouraging Israel to mobilize its forces along the northern border, a move that would not produce any objections from the international community and which would compel the regime to withdraw its forces from a number of frontline positions and relieve the pressure on the opposition. But this has not happened, nor will it, so long as America and Israel remain unwilling to bring down Assad regime. They may not like the regime, but it is nevertheless a regime that is well practised in accommodating their demands and any unknown alternative might prove worse in this respect. Much better, then, to watch the Syrians fight and destroy each other.

Your discourse unambiguously states that America and Israel have no desire to see the regime fall and that their actions are determined by the “better the devil you know” principle. How do you explain a counter-discourse, promulgated by analysts and intellectuals, especially among Leftist circles in Europe the US and the Arab world, which is based on the supposition of an American/Israeli/imperialist plot? For some people, the revolution in Syria has been a conspiracy from the outset. For others it was hijacked by the conspiracy.

For a long time, the Arab world and other places have played host to stories and illusions about the supernatural power of the United States, which controls everything through complex conspiracies and plots. In this worldview, everything that takes place can be explained in terms of imperialist conspiracies. This is an error. Without a doubt, the United States are still a great power and capable of influencing events, but they are not always able to manipulate them by means of complex conspiracies: this really is beyond their capacities. Of course the Americans do sometimes try to do this, but they fail, too. 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. When a protest movement enters this phase we see new dynamics at play: usually, the rise of the most extremist and brutal elements to the front ranks.

Choosing between arming the opposition and negotiations

You have a cautious stance on recent Western statements about arming opposition fighters. Why is this?

It is linked to an evaluation of the consequences. Once again, I believe there are much simpler ways that the West can take before making the leap to military aid, some of which I have mentioned above, but which further include providing increased levels of humanitarian aid. If we are serious, we must look at the consequences of such an action. What would be the result on a humanitarian level? My question is practical, not ethical. My response would be not dissimilar to the answers given by other observers who are closely following the situation in Syria, such as Patrick Cockburn, who said that such a step [supplying the opposition with arms] would only escalate the military confrontation while maintaining the same military balance, since the regime’s allies—Russia, Iran and Iraq—will continue to do what they have always done and supply the regime with more advanced weaponry.

This analysis normally rests on the assumption that Russia will supply the Syrian regime with advanced weaponry, which would upset the (unspoken) balance of power with Israel. Do you not think that Russia, albeit a supporter of the Syrian regime, would rather not take any steps that might threaten Israel’s security?

It can supply Syria with advanced weaponry without reaching the point of genuinely threatening Israel. Let us not forget that the regime might be using chemical weapons. There is still a lot of uncertainty over this right now, but it’s a possibility that will inevitably come true in the future.

You see negotiations, accompanied by political and diplomatic pressure, as the best way to force the regime into making concessions. But there is a commonly held belief among Syrians that their regime will never make any serious concessions nor negotiate with the opposi- tion, even if the revolutionaries were standing on the steps of the presidential palace. Gaddafi is a recent example of such an attitude.

I may agree with you on that. However, to force the regime into negotiations you have to change the circumstances so they are compelled to accept. One way to do this is for Geneva—with the consent of the major powers—to create a situation whereby the regime is encouraged (or rather, forced, which they can manage if they really want to) to accept a resolution based on a transitional period, which paves the way for Assad eventually stepping down.

Yet there’s concern that the continued failure to arm the opposition in an organized manner and within clear frameworks means the continued control of certain individuals and religious authorities in the Gulf over the provision of weapons to limited groups—the more extremist elements—within the ranks of the armed opposition. This would entail the continued marginaliza- tion of the moderate opposition fighters.

Your question deals with extremely narrow tactical options. 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. This step would most likely produce an escalation of the military conflict and open the door to further military upgrading and expansion on the part of the regime, leading to increased destruction and the regime staying in place for longer. 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. These are the options we have.

But do you believe that you will be able to make the regime accept change through negotiations?

Honestly and objectively I reckon that both options offer only a slim chance of success. But you have to make a choice. Which path will you take? 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 becomes more acceptable.

But time is measured out in Syrian lives. We’re taking about going to Geneva against the backdrop of the current situation in Syria and engaging in a lengthy series of negotiations.

The opposite argument would say that many Syrian lives would be lost by taking the other option.

There is the difficulty of convincing the broad swathes of the Syrian population who have been forced to take up arms, that the supply of weapons from abroad will only make things worse, while the regime is receiving massive and continuous aid from its allies. Do you not think that the real challenge does not so much lie in accepting these arms, but in blocking those who supply arms to garner support for their own agendas?

Once again the question that bothers me is: What would be the consequences of taking such a step? It is not just a question of increasing the casualties and the destruction but of entrenching Syria’s current balance of military power on higher level, with more weapons available, and all that would entail for Syria. As for your point about agendas, that’s another issue altogether. What do you expect from a country like Saudi Arabia, for instance?

Non-violence, militarization and global solidarity with the Syrian revolutionaries

Syrians today continue to receive blame because of the armed resistance taking centre-stage in a revolution whose protests were peaceful and remained so throughout its early months. Do you think that Syrians had other options but let them slip?

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.

Syrians have feelings of bitterness over the lack of effective solidarity with their movement. I am not talking here about governments and politicians, but of ordinary citizens, activists and civil society organizations. This is not just a result of the current situation; it goes back to the initial period, when the protests were entirely peaceful and continued to be so for approximately the first ten months. How do you explain this?

It is not the impression I have, looking at it from inside the activist movement in the West. I believe that there is solidarity with the Syrians. But how can solidarity be transformed into action? That’s another matter. Suppose you were an activist living in New York: How could you demonstrate your solidarity? What would you do?

Organize weekly demonstrations, perhaps?

There were demonstrations. Not many, perhaps. But in the end, demonstrations are of limited efficacy.

But within days of the popular movement starting in Taksim Square and, despite the fact we are talking about a different context altogether, we witnessed demonstra- tions in solidarity with the Turks around the world. In Syria, we longed to see the same thing.

In my view it goes back to the ability of Turkish communities on the West to gather and mobilize, an ability that Syrian communities do not, to my knowledge, possess. But I say again that I believe Syria has received solidarity, just as Tunisia and Egypt before it.

Talking of Egypt, there was widespread solidarity—whose causes are obvious—with the demonstrators in Tahrir Square. The Syrians’ feelings of bitterness stem from a sense that they were being asked to produce a second Tahrir Square if they were to get the same support, even though they left no stone unturned and many lives were lost trying to achieve just that.

Absolutely. They were prevented by the use of excessive force. I agree with you that Tahrir Square received an extraordinary degree of attention, which was due in part to those activists who worked so hard to connect it to the rest of the world. Solidarity between Tahrir Square’s demonstrators and their counterparts in Wisconsin, for instance, had a profound impact on the American public. In any case, a delay in showing solidarity and support has happened many times before. Kennedy invaded South Vietnam in 1961. His planes started bombing runs from that date. Yet it took five years to hold the first organized protest against US intervention.

But we are talking about the age of new media, modern communications technology and a freely available flow of images…

Correspondents and reports were reaching us from Vietnam. That wasn’t the main obstacle in my opinion. Basically, a popular will to support the movement wasn’t yet in place. Support and effective solidarity require time, effort and organisation and perhaps this is lacking. Look at Palestine: we have a tragedy that has been going on for decades and I do not believe there is enough solidarity there. Things have improved recently, perhaps, and we’ve started to see a greater effectiveness at work, but for years I myself needed police protection whenever I advocated or organized any initiative in solidarity with Palestine.

Bashar Al Assad’s fate and the future of Syria

What do you think will be the fate of Bashar Al Assad?

His fate will be to fall one way or another. But I won’t lie to you: I believe that the consequences of the current situation could be terrible. Syria could break up. The Kurds could gain independence in some of their areas through some kind of relationship with Iraqi Kurdistan and maybe in coordination with Turkey, while the remaining Syrian territories could split in two, with Assad ruling one part of what remains. This is horrible and very painful for the Syrian people and Syria, but unfortunately that is the way things are going at the moment.

But do you believe that neighbouring states would be happy to see such a map take shape, with all the instability these changes might produce along the country’s borders?

They might not like it, but what options do they have? You have to pick between the choices that you have and not the ones you wish for. That’s the truth of the matter. I suspect the United States might accept it and Israel would be quite happy as well, because then Syria would be broken and fragmented like the rest of the Arab world.

What about its obsession with security along its northern borders?

There would be no major changes. Assad would continue to control that sector. Overall, there will be no serious threat to Israel’s security because it possesses a considerable military superiority over all its neighbours, whatever the final outcome. Sometimes the prioritization of Israeli security is overstated. Israel has refused many offers to guarantee its security in return for peace treaties based on UN resolutions. It prefers expansion over security: this is its policy.

There is one astonishing point related the Syrian revolution. Individuals and groups belonging to the Far Left in Europe, the Arab world and other regions of the globe, have evinced hostility to the revolution on the grounds that it is part of an American and imperialist plot. Hostility also comes from the Far Right, which regards it as an extremist threat to the existence of minority communities and Christians in particular. We have heard similar statements from the French Far Right and from Nick Griffin, leader of the extremist British National Party who visited Damascus, defending Bashar Al Assad. How do you interpret this phenomenon?

Just disregard them. They are insignificant. They represent groups that cannot be reached or communicated with. There is no need to worry too much about your inability to convince fringe groups it is difficult to reach out to in the first place. There are groups far more important, active and influential over the decision-making process that should be reached out to first.

In a conversation you recorded during the first months of the revolution with the martyr Basel Shehade, you said that you had no advice or ready-made prescriptions to offer the Syria people in their predicament. Has that changed?

Honestly, nothing has changed. Syrians are facing difficult and complex circumstances and they certainly have a better idea of what they should be doing than I do. I’ve refused to give advice before, whether in Vietnam, Nicaragua or anywhere else. But perhaps I would say that Syrians have to evaluate the choices before them and consider the consequences attendant on each. You have to face the actual fact and not staying in a world of your own imagining, saying ‘I want this’ and ‘I don’t want that’.

All ultimately-successful movements have made certain concessions at certain moments based on their reading of reality and an evaluation of the other options available to them. Even the Zionist movement engaged with the Peel Commission’s report in 1937, as the best of all available solutions, then proceeded from there. The Vietnamese accepted the Geneva Agreements of 1954: in effect acceding to partition. The alternative could have been the use of nuclear weapons against them or to be crushed militarily. They agreed so they might stay in the game and in my opinion they did well to agree.

It is hard to make progress in the real world without making various compromises. I have no advice other than to say don’t let your wishes whip away the facts entirely. Be aware of the facts. We live in an actual world, with all its horror and ugliness, and we have to deal with it and make our decisions within it.

Do you believe that a bargaining process could eventually result in Al Assad being part of a future Syria, whatever the framework of the solution?

The small hope – albeit a weak one – centres around negotiations with Assad’s supporters, especially Russia, doing what they claim they will do: Compelling Assad to accept being part of a transitional government with limited powers … paving the way for his departure. A slender hope perhaps, but not impossible. If you were to ask me about the probability of it being successful, I have no answer; but it does seem not impossible.


This interview took place on 16 June 2013, exclusively for The Republic website, the newspaper of the Local Coordination Committee (LCC), and the Heinrich Böll Stiftung (hbs). Special thanks to Dr.Fawaz Traboulsi for making this interview possible.

Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor Emeritus at the MIT Department of Linguistics and Philosophy. He is the author of numerous best-selling political works, including recently Hopes and Prospects and Making the Future. Noam Chomsky is also a member of the IOA Advisory Board.

Mohammad Al Attar is a Syrian playwright and drama practitioner. He graduated in Applied Drama from Goldsmiths, University of London. His play “Withdrawal” was performed in London, New York, New Delhi, Berlin, Tunis and Beirut. His play “Online” was premiered at Royal Court Theatre in London. His most recent play “Look at the Camera” was premiered in Brussels and Berlin. Al Attar has published numerous texts for performances and critical contributions published in several Arab newspapers and magazines.

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