Gordon Campbell on the SIS crying wolf, the Syrian end game and Max Edwards RIP

In the wake of the Cullen/Reddy review of the security services – and the suggested extension of their powers – it seems healthy to highlight any examples of the SIS crying wolf. We’ve already had them do that in the case of the ‘jihadi brides’ where SIS director Rebecca Kitteridge raised the spectre of women leaving from New Zealand to join the Islamic State.

This turned out to be less of a threat than painted, since it subsequently emerged that the very small number of women concerned were actually leaving from Australia, with no evidence that (a) they would be coming back from Syria and (b) if they did, that they would be returning to New Zealand and (c) even if they were, whether such a handful of returnees would pose a security threat.

This week, the SIS reported back on their use of the special powers granted to them in late 2014 to conduct surveillance without a warrant, in cases of serious and urgent threat.

It turns out that between July and December 2015 that power was used only once. Moreover, as others have pointed out, where are the arrests for terrorist activity? If we are indeed facing a terrorist threat sufficient to justify the granting of these additional powers of privacy intrusion to the state, shouldn’t at least some of these bogeymen be ending up in court?

The Eagles! The Eagles Are Coming!

As everyone knows from Gandalf’s flowchart, all sorts of problems can be resolved by the arrival of the eagles. In the Battle of the Five Or So Armies (Assad, Islamic State, the Russians, the Kurds, the US etc) currently being waged in Syria, the Eagles are also belatedly making an appearance. Will they save the day, and whose day, exactly? Read on.

But first, some footnotes. In recent days, the mainstream media coverage of the civil war in Syria has featured the usual context-less, analysis-free footage of the liberation of the ancient ruins of Palmyra. But the real question was – why did Islamic State seize Palmyra in the first place, given that it has virtually no strategic military value? Sure, it did provide some propaganda value, as IS were seen to be triumphantly despoiling yet another precious archeological site, and were soon busily selling off the artifacts it hadn’t smashed or blown up. But more to the point, why did Assad/ the Russians feel Palmyra was worth liberating, given that this diversion into the dusty empty east of the country could only be only a delay and distraction from the more serious business of re-taking the actual IS strongholds in Raqaa and Aleppo?

Well, the ever-insightful Juan Cole suggests in this article, that the answer could lie with the Americans, and the gathering of bargaining chips for the end game of the Syrian civil war.

Of late, US Secretary of State John Kerry has been talking of a ‘federal’ outcome for Syria, post war, which would entail a de facto partitioning of the entire country: with a Kurdish region in the north, a coastal section in the west and centre (essentially extending from the Russian base at Latakia southwards to the border with Lebanon) that would be controlled by Assad, and with the rest either reserved for the “moderate” forces (ie, US puppet forces) and/or fundamentalists of various stripes.

Similarly, we heard a lot from the US about a ‘federal’ solution for Iraq immediately after the March 2003 invasion. In Syria, federalism is the next-best bet for the Americans in the wake of the policy that the Obama administration has followed to date – which involved arming and promoting a bloody stalemate in which Assad and their jihadi foes would hopefully fight themselves to an exhausted standstill. This policy got scuppered by the Russian intervention last September. Unlike the Americans, the Russians know exactly who they’re backing to win in Syria, and have acted accordingly.

Crucially, the Russians and Assad are having nothing to do with federalism. They’re therefore speedily ‘liberating’ some strategically meaningless desert tracts (that include Palmyra) so that – as Cole says – they can fend off the emergent Kurdish enclave of Rojava in the north, and go to the bargaining table claiming to be in control of almost all the country, in percentage terms at least:

So maybe the regime is trying to prevent a federal solution by recovering the two big (if largely empty) provinces of eastern Syria, making an argument that Damascus has 90% of the country and so federal devolution makes no sense. So they may be trying to head off the Kurds at al-Raqqa, and trying to forestall a Kerry de-centralization initiative. i.e., the Palmyra campaign is about shaping the post-war settlement.

There is a historical precedent, Cole adds:

If that is true, we’re now in the end stages of the war, and al-Assad is acting toward Daesh territory as Stalin did toward the Nazis in 1945– trying to get as far into Germany as possible, before the fall of Berlin.

The Russians remember that WWII stuff. The Americans, not so much. Oh, and what about the eagles? Well, the good news is that the popular “third force” so long planned and prayed for by the Americans is now reportedly making genuine progress both politically and on the battlefield in Syria.

This force is called the SSNP, or the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. It is an old pre-civil war political movement (founded in the 1930s) that has been both outlawed and (occasionally) embraced in the past by the Assad regime. It is strongly anti-jihadi, is dedicated to the preservation of Syria as a holistic state and has a military wing (of 6,000 to 8,000 fighters) called the Eagles of the Whirlwind.

The bad news for the Americans is that the Eagles are fighting right alongside Hezbollah, are fiercely anti-Arab and Islamophobic, and – while this point is contested – they are alleged by some historians to have drawn a good deal of the inspiration for their Syrian nationalist cause from the European fascist parties of the 1920s and 1930s. The SSNP also has an insignia that – while supposedly a fusion of the cross and the crescent – also looks a bit like a swastika whirling in motion.

Gandalf of course, might have been able to do business with these Eagles, too. He got on well enough with the elves, who also had a pretty xenophobic, elfen-supremacist line towards anyone else who strayed onto their patch.

Max Edwards, Remembered

Last year, Max Edwards became known as the precocious British teenager behind the Anonymous Revolutionary blog, on which he wrote a series of columns about the place of Marxism in modern society. Late last year, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. His subsequent columns on mortality and his impending death would have been worth reading if written by anyone – but coming from a 16 year old, they were deeply moving. Max kept writing almost until he died, last week. A couple of his recent columns can be read here and also here.

The Guardian story about his death is here and the ‘last post’ by his parents, and the comments from the public about his life and writing can be read here.

The Anonymous Revolutionary columns are worth tracking back to find on the blog, and some of the best links are on his Twitter feed here. Some of Max’s columns were collected in a book published earlier this year.

Finally, there’s this moving conclusion, from the recent article he wrote for the Guardian:

I also remind myself that the experience of dying is not unique to me. Whether it happens aged 16 or 95, experiencing the end of everything you know is the same process – it’s just that I and those around me are forced to come to terms with this fact prematurely. Finally, I feel it has helped to process the whole issue selflessly. Some people might find it helpful to know that they are loved, that people care about them and that they won’t be forgotten when they die. I can understand this and I see how it’s comforting, but I also find it consoling to take the opposing view: stop dwelling on personal suffering and carry on as before.

This approach seems to help deflate the hype that terminal diagnoses carry. Pity, grief and sympathy are all natural emotions, and they certainly have their place, but I’ve found the message of “Stop whining and get on with it” far more effective. Stoicism, I feel, is more effective than grief: a simple reality-check helps to set my perspectives in place.

It helps to remind myself that even if I’m dying, it’s not all about me. At the end of the day I’m one in seven billion, a number that – like my cancer – will continue to grow and multiply over the coming months and years. While my life may be all I know, I’m nothing more than a dot on this planet. When you take into account the dozens of people I know, the billions I don’t, the thousands of miles that separate us, and the ever running river of time on which we all finitely float, you may come to the inevitable and strangely comforting realisation that we are all going to die: me, you and everyone else. Get over it.

Crimson, Clover etc

Talking of mortality… With Tommy James fast approaching his 69th birthday and since, as Simon Vita recently pointed out, 69 seems to be the new 27 (eg, David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Patti Duke) we should probably celebrate now the biggest hit that Tommy James and the Shondells ever released: “Crimson and Clover” ….over and over.

While the tremolo – first on the guitar, then on the voice – was something of an innovation and seemed hellishly psychedelic for a Top 40 record of the time, the single that got released was actually only an acetate version of a demo meant to be re-recorded. Yet when the acetate was tested at a Chicago radio station, the station secretly recorded it and played it…over and over. This triggered a massive response, and forced the record company to get the single out, quick smart. A longer version minus some of the flubs and sound dropouts appeared on the subsequent album, but this is the original version that we know and love. Great Spinal Tap-ish video, too.

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7 Comments on Gordon Campbell on the SIS crying wolf, the Syrian end game and Max Edwards RIP

  1. I don’t understand why various commentators seem to think this single use of a power is bad news or will condemn the SIS.

    The broader public is only going to think the SIS is being appropriately reserved and cautious with it’s new powers and that it is a good and responsible thing.

  2. I believe the argument is that, in an age of deep suspicion over governments spying on their own populace. It is uncouth and insensitive to baggsy all the cool spy toys and powers when there is no clear or demonstrable need for them. If, for analogies sake, we were instead to give our police rocket launchers in every car and over the course of a couple of years they only used one once. Should we congratulate their self restraint or instead wonder why they need them in the first place?

  3. @ Fentex Really?!You can’t understand when the threats are not real (and are bogeymen) increasing the powers( and funding) of a obsessively paranoid surveillance organization that does not work in the interest of the people of NZ may not be a good idea.

    Most people know “ISIS” is “Washington”.
    Wouldn’t it be more appropriate if the people of NZ had an “intelligence” org that had the ability to recognize a serious and urgent threat, not make one up and get more funding to market and perpetuate Washington’s “war on terror”.


  4. You can’t understand when the threats are not real (and are bogeymen) increasing the powers( and funding) of a obsessively paranoid surveillance organization that does not work in the interest of the people of NZ may not be a good idea.

    I am very much against giving unending authority to the state and in particular much power at all to paranoid spooks.

    But I don’t think pointing out that they’re not using those powers is going to be an effective argument to sway opinions of people who didn’t mind them having them in the first place.

    Where does that argument put opponents if the SIS was using these powers left right and centre in a manner I think would reveal their paranoia and over-reach?

    Having made an argument not using such powers proves they shouldn’t exist what would their being used prove?

    All the general public will take from the argument is that the SIS looks like it’s responsible with these powers and if it wants more would probably continue to be responsible. It’s not going to be an effective counter to the risk of abuse.

  5. The SIS don’t need more powers/funding.
    The paranoid mass surveillance is wrong and oppressive action.
    Do you think the SIS are answerable/ responsible to the people of NZ when we know they are not.
    Your error is that you wrongly believe the SIS are “responsible” totally without any proof of your wild claim.
    Who gives authority that is running amok more power.

  6. Your error is that you wrongly believe the SIS are “responsible” totally without any proof of your wild claim.

    You are not addressing anything I wrote. I don’t trust spooks at all, I don’t think we’ve much use for them at all let alone any use of spooks with more power and less accountability than our police.

    My point isn’t that I support them but that the argument that they’re not using their powers is of much use. When talking to the broader public that argument is counter productive because it logically supports the SIS if they abuse their powers.

  7. Give them more powers because you believe they are not using their powers??!!
    This is not an argument, its ignorance.

    Who the hell really knows, as there is not a media scandal every time they abuse their power.
    The spooks( that you don’t trust) don’t advertise their abuses of power.
    You don’t know what they are doing.

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