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Getting rid of Bashar Assad won’t end Syria’s civil war



To hear Obama administration officials talk about the Syrian civil war, you’d think it all hinges on the fate of one man.

According to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Syrian President Bashar Assad “calculated that he could shoot his way out” of the mass uprising that erupted two years ago, and today either fails to appreciate that he can’t or sees no viable alternative to going down with the ship. U.S. strategy is focused primarily on how to “change his current perception.” The administration has held off on providing large-scale assistance to Syrian rebels mainly because it still hopes the dictator can, with Russian prodding, be made to “read the tea leaves correctly” and relinquish power to a transitional government before all hell breaks loose.

Hawkish critics of the administration’s Syria policy also see Assad as singularly central to the conflict in Syria, counseling intervention in part because they think accelerating his downfall will bring the war to a swifter and more favorable end.

While either a negotiated or military end to the civil war would be welcome, given the staggering human cost of the conflict, both strategies for achieving this goal implicitly rest on the presumption that Assad and his immediate circle have so much power over their increasingly decentralized state and paramilitary pro-regime forces that a snap of his fingers – or of his neck – can bring an end to their fight against majority Sunni domination. But that presumption is flawed.

While Assad himself was never really the brains behind his regime, until a few years ago there was nevertheless a clear centralization of presidential authority over the Syrian security apparatus through his brother-in-law, Maj. Gen. Assef Shawkat. However, Shawkat was assassinated midway through the uprising. His wife Bushra, once considered to be as influential behind the scenes as her brother, departed with their children to the United Arab Emirates shortly thereafter.

It’s not clear who wears the pants in the regime now. Though the president still enjoys substantial institutional legitimacy in the eyes of many Alawites and other minorities, this reserve has been gradually depleting as the inevitable collapse of the Baathist state looms nearer. Pro-regime forces are fighting with far more unity of purpose than the disparate rebel groups arrayed against them, but it is a cohesion built on desperation and shared sectarian anxieties, not loyalty to Assad. It is unlikely that he can still bring them to heel in the face of determined resistance within a security establishment deeply implicated in war crimes.

Meanwhile, the President’s brother, Republican Guard commander Maher Assad — whom even regime supporters privately acknowledge to be psychotic (he once shot Shawkat in the stomach during a family argument) — has proven his mettle on the battlefield. He probably has the wherewithal to defy, if not abort outright, any effort by his brother to reach a negotiated settlement on terms acceptable to the rebels.

Moreover, manpower shortfalls have forced the Syrian army to cede effective control over many areas of the country to locally recruited militias and mercenary groups operating outside of the formal command structure, loyal only to whomever pays their bills.

Increasingly, this is Iran. Tehran is pouring financial and material resources into the conflict ($12.6-billion dollars so far, according to one estimate), and not only through the Syrian government. Its militant Lebanese Shiite ally, Hezbollah, is intervening directly in the Qusayr region and organizing indigenous militias among Syria’s small Shiite minority. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has been training its own Syrian national militia, though U.S. and Israeli suggestions that it numbers up to 50,000 fighters may be overblown. Clearly, the Iranians are determined to keep Syria (or parts thereof) within their sphere of influence irrespective of whether and when the regime falls. They are not angling to help governing elites negotiate a better severance package.

Syria will be at war for as long as Iran is willing to finance and resupply clients committed to resisting the rebel takeover. The rebels are not unified enough (or moderate enough) to credibly offer concessions that might entice predominantly non-Sunni pro-regime combatants to spurn Iranian protection. If Assad chooses to take a golden parachute, others will surely be found to lead the fight against Syria’s departure from the Iranian axis. They may, over time and at great human and material cost, be forced underground, but Syria will not be at peace until Iran throws in the towel (if then).

Consequently, the primary goal of U.S. policy should be to drive up the costs to Tehran of intervention in Syria as much as possible. Fortunately, these expenses already are skyrocketing. The growing financial toll of Iran’s proxy war is a huge drain on its sanctions-ridden economy. Even worse are the reputational costs of a Shiite Islamist republic orchestrating murderous violence against Sunnis, who comprise the overwhelming majority of Muslims worldwide.

Already, the conflict has led Sunni governments to vigorously contest Iranian regional ambitions for the first time. Turkey’s recent reconciliation with Israel is a harbinger of the strategic setbacks likely to attend continued Iranian aggression in Syria. With a restive Sunni minority (and widespread internet access) at home, Iran’s leaders also could face troublesome domestic political repercussions if the conflict drags on much longer.

Tehran’s only hope of snatching some measure of victory from the jaws of defeat is a ceasefire in place and an interim power-sharing formula that will allow its proxies to remain armed — thereby subverting the ensuing political process, much as Hezbollah did after the 1975-1990 civil war in neighboring Lebanon.

Overly zealous American pressure for a diplomatic solution (whatever the terms) will only encourage Iranian hopes that such a partial victory is still possible. A series of negotiated truces during the Lebanese civil war succeeded only in drawing it out for 15 years and saddling the country with a post-war political order more dysfunctional than its predecessor. A ceasefire in Syria before pro-regime forces are decisively defeated won’t produce a sustainable transition to democracy – it will only lead Syria down the same path (which is why hardline rebels and their outside sponsors will never accept a truce).

But neither is intervention the answer. Indeed, Iran would dearly love to reframe its participation in a chronic sectarian conflict as a fight against imperial powers: Internationalization of the war therefore could bolster its strategic leverage. If Western governments become invested in the fighting, the temptation to reward Iran’s disengagement from Syria with appeasement of its nuclear ambitions may become irresistible down the road. The best way the United States can make Iran cry uncle on both fronts is to not get involved in Syria.

Gary Gambill is an associate fellow at the Middle East Forum.

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Middle East

A Lone Wolf in Afrin

Timur Akhmetov



The International Reaction to Turkey’s Military Campaign in Afrin

Despite numerous efforts by the Turkish government to explain its concerns over the threats PYD/PKK represent for Turkish national security, Ankara’s western partners and international players showed little support for the military operation in Afrin. On January 25, US President Donald Trump’s homeland security adviser Tom Bossert stated that Washington would prefer Turkey to abstain from direct intrusion in Syria and instead focus on “long-term strategic goals” like ending Syria’s war. The major U.S. concern, allegedly, was that deeper Turkish involvement against Kurdish-controlled elements would spoil the power balance and risk major escalation with the participation of U.S. troops.

On January 28, NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg, when asked about the Alliance’s official position on the “Olive Branch” operation, responded by saying that even though Turkey has a right to self defence, it is important to pursue national security objectives in a proportionate and measured way, implying that military actions may contribute to the destabilization of Western-led efforts in Syria.

On January 29, UN General Secretary Spokesman Stephane Dujarric suggested that the Turkish military operation had led to losses among local civilians in Afrin, directly challenging Turkish official statements, particularly the claims of the Turkish General Staff about the absence of civilian casualties, despite the reports that the operation is complicated by instances when PYD fighters are spotted in civil clothes.

In early February, officials from the European Parliament and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), while acknowledging Turkey’s right to protect its borders, criticized a large-scale crackdown by the Turkish state authorities on anti-war campaigners and dissenters who demanded a quick end to the Turkish army’s military involvement in a foreign country. Western officials underlined that security concerns should not lead to disproportionate restrictions on fundamental freedoms, abuse of the state’s imperfect anti-terrorism laws, and detainment of people on charges of terrorist propaganda due to social media posts.

In late February, French officials, in several separate initiatives, called on the Turkish government to respect UN Security Council resolution 2401 on the Syrian ceasefire, spare civilian lives in Afrin and ensure the supply of humanitarian aid to the region. On February 26, in a phone conversation with his Turkish counterpart, Emmanuel Macron stressed that the ceasefire covered all Syrian territory, including Afrin, and must be put into effect everywhere and by everyone without delay, implying that the PYD shouldn’t be targeted by Turkish forces.

On a regional level as well, the Turkish military operation was received negatively. On January 21, an official statement by Egypt’s foreign ministry described the operation as a serious threat to Syria’s national sovereignty, while Turkish efforts were said to hamper plans to reach a political solution to the Syrian crisis and combat terrorism.

Another regional actor, Iraq, whose principal position has been historically important in Turkey’s fight against the PKK insurgency in the Qandil Mountains along the northern border regions of Iraq, linked the operation in Afrin with its own efforts to solve the problem of Turkey’s military presence in Iraq. On February 20, Baghdad issued a statement where it once again called upon Turkey to evict its Turkish base and compromise with the country, whose claims have been backed multiple times by the Arab league. Less critical voices were also heard from the Gulf monarchies, except for Qatar, which Turkey has been supporting since the diplomatic crisis broke out last year.

The regional allies of the Syrian government, Iran and Russia, stated that Turkish security concerns can be understood, though the sides must exert self-restraint and avoid turning the Afrin canton into another source of instability. On February 19, Iranian minister of foreign affairs Javad Zarif stated that even though Tehran understands the threats Ankara is facing, Turkey should seek other ways to solve security issues, because intrusion into a neighboring country will not provide a tangible solution. The Russian official position emphasized the provocative actions of the US government in Syria, characterized by its building a military presence using Kurdish elements in the SDF, which ultimately provoked Turkey to undertake extreme measures against the PYD elements in Afrin.

Domestic Politics in Turkey and the Olive Branch Operation

From the very beginning of the Olive Branch operation, the Turkish government adopted a hardline approach toward its critics. By the end of January, the Turkish government had ordered the arrest of more than 300 people on allegations of spreading terrorist propaganda over social media. Anti-war campaigners and civil society groups faced outright defamation from high-level officials.

The heavy-handed approach of the Turkish officials was not limited to efforts to silence anti-war critics. On February 15, Turkish former Chief of the Staff Ilker Basbug made a statement that the military campaign should not be turned into “material for domestic politics,” suggesting that both the ruling party and opposition should avoid using security matters for political gains, especially to rally the support of the population before the season of critical national elections. The general’s comments were criticized by Turkish President Erdogan.

Meanwhile, major political parties expressed their support for the military campaign in Afrin. Considerable support has also registered among broader layers of Turkish society. According to the MAK polling and survey firm, the level of public support for the operations in late January was stood at 85%.

These conditions contributed to the consolidation of the information environment in Turkey. The trend was further reinforced by the Turkish government’s efforts to tame critical media over the period before the start of the operation). Lack of security and guarantees against arbitrary arrests of journalists, both Turkish and foreign, also contributed to the lack of discussion on the necessity of the military campaign and critical self-reflection on the part of government officials in regards to the anti-PKK fight in previous years.

International Coverage and Comments on the Olive Branch Operation

From the official statements of Western, regional and local players, we can assume that there are several issues that cause criticism of the Turkish military operation in Syrian Afrin. A major problem for the Turkish government is proving the legitimacy of its military invasion of a foreign country. The Turkish government justified the move by invoking the UN Charter provisions that give states certain rights to such acts in cases when national security is under threat and other means of diplomacy fail to solve the issue.

The problems with the justification of the military campaign partly stem from the fact that the Turkish government has not been cooperating with the Syrian government, a legitimate representative of the Syrian people in the UN, to resolve the PKK issue. A further problem was presented in statements declaring that the Syrian PYD is not a terrorist organization and does not present a threat to Turkish security. These claims are supported by the fact that the Turkish government has been in contact with the PYD on several occasions, most famously during the Shah Euphrates Operations in February 2015. Another point supporting the thesis against Ankara’s justification of the military campaign deals with the cooperation between the PYD-affiliated Syrian Democratic Forces and the United States of America, a major ally of the Turkish government in security matters and the fight against the PKK in Turkey and Iraq.

Further criticism of the military operations revolves around claims that the move is directed either against the Kurdish population of Afrin or the civilian population of the canton. This thesis is supported by claims that the Turkish government uses paramilitary groups, whose background may be traced to the moderate Islamist Syrian movement. The fact that Free Syrian Army groups are not affiliated with the Turkish government via a legal framework prompted many critics to say that the military campaign could lead to war crimes in Afrin.

Finally, a considerable number of comments critical of the Turkish military operation touch upon the Turkish government’s utilization of the move for domestic political interests. The narrative of a Turkish struggle against Western-supported terrorists in Syria suits the plans of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development party to consolidate the electorate around nationalist slogans and the idea of a strong ruler at the helm of Turkey.

The Constraints of Turkish diplomacy

Official Turkish diplomatic efforts since the operations began have been directed at the clarification of Turkey’s concerns to the country’s allies and partners in Syria. The meeting between Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on February 16 should be seen in the context of these efforts. The meeting is considered a part of the initiatives to clarify Turkish objectives in Afrin, influence public opinion in the West, and resolve the PKK/PYD issue through diplomatic means. Contacts between Turkey, Russia and Iran have also been serving to mitigate concerns over the military operation in Afrin on the official level. On the local level, the Turkish government approached foreign representatives to explain Ankara’s official position with regards to the PKK in Syria and the security concerns the Turkish government has in light of the military build-up in northern Syria.

On the level of public diplomacy, governmental efforts to clarify the official position and bring the Turkish narrative to the broader international community seem to have failed. The primary reason behind this misfortune is domestic politics, where the Turkish government, through its own actions, contributes to the main theses of the critics of the Olive Branch operation in Afrin. Of particular importance in this context is the use of Ottoman and Islamic narratives in the Turkish media. In the absence of Western journalists in Turkey, and with wide-spread biases around the world, such messages reinforced negative coverage of the military operation. Moreover, the arrests of Kurdish activists and harassment of Kurdish politicians contributed to the narrative that the operation is directed not at the PKK elements in Afrin, but at the Kurdish population per se. In a number of statements, Turkish officials resorted to anti-Western whataboutism without providing objective clarification on the military and defensive necessity of the operation.

The Practical dimension of the Mishandled Diplomatic Efforts

It is important to emphasize that the informational environment and coverage of the military operation in the world is tightly linked to Turkey’s efforts to support counter-terrorism and its own political interests in Syria. Failed attempts to withstand the negative reactions from its regional and global partners may negatively impact Turkey’s ongoing fight with the PKK. First of all, a failure to present the Olive Branch as an operation against the PKK, and not the Kurdish population of northern Syria, contributed to the narrative of the PKK’s sympathizers and large support network in Europe, from which the terrorist organization manages to send financial aid to its headquarters in Turkey, Iraq and Syria, thus influencing its activity against Turkish state. Moreover, as the example of Germany shows, failure to provide a credible narrative for the anti-terrorist operation in Afrin may force the European government to listen to the vocal pro-Kurdish community and impose restrictions on the Turkish government, especially with regards to arms exports.

Negative coverage of Turkish actions in Afrin may hinder Ankara’s efforts to gain a stable foothold in the region as well. With a narrative that the Turkish operation is part of an occupation by Islamists or an Ottoman-inspired Turkish voluntarist government may harm Turkish plans to build legitimate self-governance in the Kurdish-majority area in Afrin. A failure to gain credibility and trust among Kurdish civilians may prompt Turkey to tighten its grip on the territory, a step that would definitely raise concerns among Turkish partners in the Astana process and players in the region that have been allergic to Turkish ambitions in recent years.

Olive Branch revealed an ongoing trend in Turkey’s isolation from its Western partners. The trend is further reinforced by the prevalence of anti-Turkish narratives in the Western media. The speculations and narrative, however, are supported by the actions and badly managed PR campaign of the Turkish government. The resulting effect negatively impacts not only Turkey’s relations with Europe and the US, but also the Turkish image in the region, especially among the Arab countries, where the media has been directed by political regimes opposing Turkish activism in the Middle East. A lack of critical debates in Turkey has been a contributing factor to the shift in Turkish foreign policy from diplomatic to military means for resolving national security issues.

First published in our partner RIAC

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Middle East

Turkey’s 18-month state of emergency has led to profound human rights violations

MD Staff



The United Nations on Tuesday called on Turkey to end its 18-month-old state of emergency, saying that the routine extension of emergency powers has resulted in “profound” human rights violations against hundreds of thousands of people and may have lasting impact on the country’s socio-economic fabric.

“One of the most alarming findings of the report […] is how Turkish authorities reportedly detained some 100 women who were pregnant or had just given birth, mostly on the grounds that they were ‘associates’ of their husbands, who are suspected of being connected to terrorist organizations,” said Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in a news release announcing the findings.

“Some were detained with their children and others violently separated from them. This is simply outrageous, utterly cruel, and surely cannot have anything whatsoever to do with making the country safer,” he added.

While taking note of the complex challenges Turkey has faced in addressing the attempted coup in July 2016, as well as a number of terrorist attacks, the report cites that the sheer number, frequency and lack of connection of several emergency decrees to any national threat seem to point to the use of emergency powers to stifle any form of criticism or dissent vis-à-vis the Government.

During the 18-month state of emergency, nearly 160,000 people have been arrested; 152,000 civil servants dismissed, many arbitrarily; and teachers, judges and lawyers dismissed or prosecuted.

The report also documents the use of torture and ill-treatment in custody, including severe beatings, threats of sexual assault and actual sexual assault, electric shocks and waterboarding by police, gendarmerie, military police and security forces.

It also notes that about 300 journalists have been arrested under allegations that their publications contained “apologist sentiments regarding terrorism” or other “verbal act offences” or for “membership” in terrorist organisations.

Over 100,000 websites were reportedly blocked in 2017, including a high number of pro-Kurdish websites and satellite TV channels.

Covering the period January to December last year, the report also states that the April 2017 referendum which extended the President’s executive powers into both the legislature and the judiciary as seriously problematic, resulting in interference with the work of the judiciary and curtailment of parliamentary oversight over the executive branch.

By the end of 2017, 22 emergency decrees were promulgated with a further two more since the cut-off date of the report.

The report further underlines the need ensure independent, individualized reviews and compensation for victims of arbitrary detentions and dismissals and calls on Turkey to promptly end the state of emergency, restore normal functioning of State institutions, as well as revise and release all legislation not compliant with its international human rights obligations, including the emergency decrees.

“I urge the Government of Turkey to ensure that these allegations of serious human rights violations are investigated and the perpetrators are brought to justice,” said Mr. Zeid, also calling on the Government to allow full and unfettered access to his Office (OHCHR) to be able to directly, independently and objectively assess the human rights situation in the southeast of the country.

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Middle East

Saudi moderation: How far will Crown Prince Mohammed go?

Dr. James M. Dorsey



In his effort to improve Saudi Arabia’s badly tarnished image and project the kingdom as embracing an unidentified form of moderate Islam, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has hinted that he envisions a conservative rather than an ultra-conservative society, but not one in which citizens are fully free to make personal, let alone political choices of their own.

Prince Mohammed’s vision, although not spelled out in great detail, seemed evident in an interview with CBS News’ 60 minutes, his first with a Western television program, on the eve of a three-week trip that is taking him across the United States.

The trip is designed to cement relations with the Trump administration following the dismissal of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who Prince Mohammed and his United Arab Emirates counterpart, Mohammed bin Zayed, viewed as unenthusiastic about their hegemonic designs for a swath of land stretching across the Middle East from the Horn of Africa to South Asia, including the Saudi-UAE-led ten-month old diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar.

The visit comes barely a month before Mr. Trump has to decide whether to pull the United States out of the 2015 international agreement with Iran designed to curb the Islamic republic’s nuclear program. A withdrawal could lead to the agreement’s collapse and spark a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

“Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible,” Prince Mohammed, who is locked into existential battle with Iran, told CBS.

It is also intended to project the kingdom as a beacon of moderation rather than a promoter of ultra-conservatism and cutting-edge modernity led by a young reformist but autocratic king-in-waiting.

In a meeting in the White House with Donald J, Trump, on the first day of his visit, both Prince Mohammed and the US president touted the economic benefits of the two countries’ relationship, with massive US arms sales and other deals, including nuclear sales that would involve reducing US safeguards by giving the kingdom the right to enrich uranium. Both leaders asserted that the deals would significantly boost employment in both Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Besides Mr. Trump, Prince Mohammed is scheduled to meet members of Congress, think tanks and academics, oil executives, businessmen and representatives of Silicon Valley’s high-tech industry and Hollywood.

Both Prince Mohammed and Mr. Trump need to demonstrate economic progress to boost or cement their popularity at home. The crown prince needs to demonstrate to Saudis that he is feted as a leader despite mounting international criticism of his conduct of the ill-fated, three-year old war in Yemen, his domestic power and asset grab under the mum of an anti-corruption campaign, the kingdom’s long-standing severe political and social restrictions, and its four-decade long global support for ultra-conservative Sunni Islam.

Beyond concern about the high civilian casualty rate in Yemen and the war having sparked one of the world’s worst current humanitarian crises, many fear that potentially destabilizing anti-Saudi sentiment in the ravaged country will persist long after the guns fall silent.

Those fears are reinforced by contradictory Saudi measures. While on the one hand pledging billions of dollars in aid and allowing at least some relief to get into the country, Saudi Arabia has aggravated the crisis in the country by expelling tens of thousands of Yemeni workers in recent months.

Prince Mohammed also needs to demonstrate that he can attract foreign investment despite the arbitrary nature of the arrest in November of hundreds of senior members of the ruling Al Saud family, prominent businessmen, and high-ranking officials, and reports that at least some of them were abused and tortured during their detention.

Most of the detainees were released after surrendering control of assets and/or paying substantial amounts of money. The government said it expects to raise $100 billion from the asset grab.

Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, one of the most prominent detainees and the kingdom’s most-high-profile businessman, who seemed to put up a fight during his detention, has since his release in January said that he would be investing in some of Prince Mohammed’s pet projects.

Prince Mohammed bolstered his image by vowing to return Saudi Arabia to an unidentified form of moderate Islam; forcing the country’s ultra-conservative religious establishment to endorse his reforms; suggesting that the kingdom may halt its massive global funding of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism to counter Iran’s revolutionary zeal; surrendering control of the Saudi-managed Great Mosque in Brussels; granting women the right to drive, join the military, and attend male sporting events; and creating a modern entertainment sector.

Despite the boldness of his moves, Prince Mohammed has sent mixed messages about how far he is prepared to go. Women and men mix at concerts and theatre plays but are segregated in the three sport stadiums that have been declared open to women.

While the crown prince has been decisive in his power and asset grab, he has yet to say a clear word about lifting Saudi Arabia’s system of male guardianship that gives male relatives control of their lives. Similarly, there is no indication that gender segregation in restaurants and other public places will be lifted.

Asked about the guardianship, Prince Mohammed evaded specifics. “Today, Saudi women still have not received their full rights. There are rights stipulated in Islam that they still don’t have. We have come a very long way and have a short way to go,” he said.

Middle East Scholar As’ad Abu Khalil, whose blog is named The Angry Arab News Service, posted a picture of Prince Salman’s meeting with Mr. Trump, noting that there was not one woman on either side of the conference table.

Speaking Arabic despite having learnt to speak English by watching movies, Prince Mohammed appeared in his CBS interview to defend allowing a mingling of the sexes in the work place while shying away from ultra-conservative Islam’s ban on a man meeting a woman unaccompanied by a male relative in non-professional or non-public settings.

“We have extremists who forbid mixing between the two sexes and are unable to differentiate between a man and a woman alone together and their being together in a workplace,” Prince Mohammed said.

The crown prince conceded that women had the right to determine what to wear if their clothes were “decent, respectful clothing, like men.” He did not define what would constitute decent but insisted that it did not have to be a “black abaya or a black head cover.”

No doubt, Prince Mohammed’s social reforms and promised economic change provide him significant arrows in his multimillion dollar public relations blitz. That is getting him the support of the White House.

“Getting a strong presidential endorsement of the crown prince’s trip to the U.S. to encourage investment in Saudi Arabia, that, I think, could be something that could be done,” said Anthony H. Cordesman, the Arleigh A. Burke chair in strategy at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Translating that into real policy and dollars and cent could, however, prove to be a harder sell.

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