Residents of Khan Sheikhun protest against a regime chemical weapons attack, 7 April 2017 [AFP]
This is Part I of a two-part article examining Chomsky and the Left's relationship with Syria.
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.
Muhammad Idrees Ahmad is a lecturer in digital journalism at the University of Stirling. He is the author of The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War, and is currently writing a book on the war of narratives over Syria.
Follow him on Twitter: @im_PULSE