Two Prominent Leftist Writers Split on Syria’s War

Divisions between Noam Chomsky and Yassin al-Haj Saleh mirror broader differences over why the conflict began

Two Prominent Leftist Writers Split on Syria’s War
Photo taken in Aleppo, Syria / Getty Images

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The history of conflicts is also a history of ideas, and wars can sometimes create deep intellectual schisms. That was the case with the Iraq War, which split the international left in a way that many liberal groups are still wrestling with.

The same happened with the Syrian uprising, which marked its 11th anniversary this week; the subsequent descent into civil war exposed differences between liberal groups around the world, mainly over whether military intervention was justified.

This week we published a major story that dealt with this split, an essay by the Syrian intellectual Yassin al-Haj Saleh on his disagreements with the American linguist and political thinker Noam Chomsky. Chomsky “simply does not see ordinary people in their struggle for life and dignity,” Haj Saleh concludes, arguing that the American was blind to the reality of the Syrian Revolution.

The essay matters because both, in their own way, embody a certain political camp. Chomsky remains a towering figure in the United States and abroad, a bellwether for the international left. Haj Saleh is a writer sometimes called the “conscience of the Syrian revolution,” someone who has experienced the very worst of both the Assad regime and the chaos that followed the uprising.

Haj Saleh was imprisoned by the Assad regime for 16 years. His wife was kidnapped in 2013 in Syria and remains missing. Haj Saleh remains patriotic — not to the “monstrous” regime “that has been in power for 52 years, precisely half of the 104 years that are the entire history of the modern Syrian state,” but to rank-and-file Syrians — the men, women and children who have been most affected by five decades of one-family rule.

The essence of their disagreement is over their perception of the Syrian civil war.

For Chomsky, the uprising could not be a genuine people-led response to the Assad regime but must have been manufactured by outsiders in order to topple an anti-American regime. For those in his political camp, the support of the West for the protesters and the flood of weapons from Western-friendly Gulf states is proof of this external intervention.

Haj Saleh believes this perspective centers the response of the West — really the response of Washington — rather than the lived experiences of Syrians. Chomsky’s perception of America’s role, he writes, “has developed from a provincial Americentrism to a sort of theology, where the U.S. occupies the place of God, albeit a malign one, the only mover and shaker.”

“Understandably,” he continues, “such a perspective raises questions about the autonomy of other actors.”

That aspect of Syrian autonomy is essential to Haj Saleh’s view of the conflict. His writing, not only in this essay, attempts to return sovereignty to Syrians — to say, in effect, that this is your problem. There is an element of personal responsibility implied in the criticism.

In his New Lines essay, Haj Saleh specifically cites two uprisings against the Assad regime — the internal rebellion of the 1980s, which most know because of the massacre at Hama, a city in central Syria, in 1982, and the 2011 revolution.

Both, he writes, “are structurally related to the cliquish and discriminatory formation of the regime.” In other words, these are problems inherent to Syria, not to be laid at the door of outsiders, even one so powerful as the United States.

Haj Saleh’s perspective is a valuable one but one that is too rarely heard in the West and certainly not at the length that we have published. Yet it is essential that intellectuals from the places being discussed are heard — not merely listened to as “another perspective” but given an equal seat at the table. There’s a reason we illustrated the two of them in dialogue.

The left needs this dialogue, but American media too often favors the writings of Americans. (An issue, perhaps, for Asser Khattab’s New Lines media newsletter one day.) Haj Saleh acknowledges this, writing that “in our world, the subaltern may have a voice, but it has no audience within elite American universities.”

This subaltern perspective — a term I dislike but that Haj Saleh uses, meaning someone from a community marginalized from power — is essential because, as he writes, there is a specificity to Syria’s political experience. It is not merely one part of a “great game” of geopolitics.

Haj Saleh’s most devastating critique of Chomsky is that he is blind to these specificities — and, worse, “that he can never say, ‘I do not know.’”

For Chomsky, Syria is a mere blank canvas on which to paint his politics. For Haj Saleh, Syria is itself the whole beautiful, tragic and complex painting.

From this week (March 14 – March 18, 2022)

Depicting Syria From Afar | Read more

Podcast | Putin’s Military Adventures, From Syria to Ukraine | Listen here
A Polish Village Is Tested | Read more

In Pristina, Survivor’s Guilt as Ukraine Fights | Read more

Injured Ukraine Civilians Vow to Fight On | Read more

Chomsky Is No Friend of the Syrian Revolution | Read more

Odesa Tears Away From the ‘Russkiy Mir’ | Read more

The End of My Life | Read more

A Syrian Activist as I Knew Him | Read more

Heaven and Earth: Jerusalem the Enigma | Read more

Arabic Media Coverage of the Ukraine War is Incomplete | Read more

Putin’s Killing Machine That Isn’t Working | Read more

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