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Syria’s madness and ours

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“Syria’s Descent into Madness” is the cover story of the May 27 Time magazine, recounting the act of ritual cannibalism by a Syrian rebel commander that transfixed the West last week.

The sort of atrocities viewable on YouTube – the slaughter by government troops of entire families including infants in Tartus province this month, mass rape of women in rebel-held zones, or the rebel leader Abu Sakkar eating a piece of the lung of a dead government soldier – are becoming Syria’s new normal.

Westerners cannot deal with this kind of warfare. The United States does not have and cannot train soldiers capable of intervening in the Syrian civil war. Short of raising a foreign legion on the French colonial model, America should keep its military personnel at a distance from a war fought with the instruments of horror.

There is nothing new about the use of atrocities to persuade one’s own forces to fight to the death because defeat would entail a dreadful retribution. The Nazis “deliberately insinuated knowledge of the Final Solution, devilishly making Germans complicit in the crime and binding them, with guilt and dread, to their leaders,” as the Atlantic Monthly’s Benjamin Schwarz reviewed the latest research. [1] Both sides in Syria perpetrate crimes against humanity for the same reason. The Assad government encourages its irregulars to rape as many women as possible in towns controlled by the opposition. [2] Abu Sakkar’s videotaped cannibalism was allegedly retaliation for such rapes.

Something more sinister is at work in the killing fields of the Middle East, however. The danger that Islam would conquer the West attenuated after the Ottomans’ failed Siege of Vienna in 1683. Muslim birth rates are falling faster than those recorded for any people at any time in history, and two of the prospective Muslim powers, Iran and Turkey, will become geriatric shells within a generation. But Muslim societies in their death throes offer a different and deadly threat to the West. It was in response to this threat that I began writing these essays. A month after the 2001 attack on the World Trade center, I warned:

The grand vulnerability of the Western mind is horror. The Nazis understood this and pursued a policy “des Schreckens” (to cause horror) and “Entsetzens” (terror, literally: dislodgement).

Horror was not merely an instrument of war in the traditional sense, but a form of Wagnerian theater, or psychological warfare on the grand scale. Hitler’s tactical advantage lay in his capacity to be more horrible than his opponents could imagine. The most horrible thing of all is that he well might have succeeded if not for his own megalomaniac propensity to overreach.

America, as Osama bin Laden taunted this week, lost in Vietnam. But it was not military setbacks, but the horrific images of Vietnamese civilians burned by napalm, that lost the war. America’s experience in the war is enshrined in popular culture in the film Apocalypse Now, modeled after Joseph Conrad’s story, The Heart of Darkness. The Belgian trading company official, Paul Kurtz, sinks into bestiality and dies with these words: “The horror! The horror!” It was a dreadful film, but a clever reference. At the close of World War I, T S Eliot subtitled his epitaph for Western civilization, The Hollow Men, with a quote from the Conrad story: “Mr Kurtz, he dead.” [3]

Pre-modern societies competed as a matter of course to commit acts of cruelty horrific enough to paralyze the will of their enemies. The Mongol conqueror Tamerlane – the Boston bomber’s namesake – killed almost all the city’s residents and piled their heads into a pyramid. The Romans lined the Appian Way with 6,000 crucified slave rebels after crushing Spartacus’ revolt in 71 BCE. During the Siege of Jerusalem in CE 76 they crucified 500 victims a day. Among all the ancient peoples only the ancient Hebrews prohibited the public display of executed corpses (Deuteronomy. 21:23), because an atrocity inflicted on the living image of God is an offense to God.

That is what holds the West together. The Christian West summoned the pagans out of pre-history on the authority of a God whose love extends to every individual, so that as individuals they might abandon the collective identity of tribe and instead embrace an individual identity as Christian converts. The bright line that separates pre-modern collective identity from the covenantal identity of the Western individual is nowhere clearer than in the matter of atrocity. Pagan tribes feel no compunction about torturing and desecrating the cadavers of members of another collectivity; Western societies cannot abide such acts without going mad. We cannot even observe them from afar without feeling a touch of madness.

We in the West already are more than a little mad. A gauge of our madness is our preoccupation with horror in popular entertainment. The horror genre supplied one in eight feature films released in the United States in 2009. When Universal Studios made its classic supernatural thrillers during the 1930s, the ratio was 1:200, and in 2000 it still was 1:25. Since 9/11, the volume of horror films has expanded from a trickle to a flood.

Horror films are not merely repellent, but stupid and repetitive. There aren’t enough possible variations on subject matter like vampires, werewolves and zombies to permit much originality, except, perhaps, in the realism of their depiction of mayhem. American audiences watch horror obsessively, the same way they watch pornography.

It is probably not a coincidence that that first big jump in the proportion of horror films (from the 2% to the 4% range) came towards the end of the Vietnam War (with Night of the Living Dead” and Rosemary’s Baby), and the second big jump (from the 4% range to 12%) came after the attacks on the Twin Towers. Americans are horrified because something has horrified them.

That was not always the case. In an essay on the horror genre for First Things magazine in October 2009, I noted that the old classic horror films were viewed as an exotic import:

Hollywood gave us a small run of exotic-origin horror films in the 1930s, all drawn from European fiction: Dracula, Frankenstein, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Picture of Dorian Gray. After the Second World War, however, these nightmares of tormented Europeans were mostly naturalized as sight gags for American adolescents. And that was how it was supposed to be. The monsters had a different meaning in their Old World provenance. As Heinrich Heine once observed, the witches and kobolds and poltergeister of German folktales are remnants of the old Teutonic nature-religion that went underground with the advent of Christianity. The pagan sees nature as arbitrary and cruel, and the monsters that breed in the pagan imagination personify this cruelty. Removed from their pagan roots and transplanted to America, they became comic rather than uncanny. America was the land of new beginnings and happy endings. The monsters didn’t belong. [4]

Horror became an American genre with local themes after Vietnam. The monsters have taken out citizenship papers and are no longer subject to deportation. The pre-modern roots of horror remain evident-every haunted house seems to be built over a Native American burial ground-but they now stem from our own past rather than the remote legends of European tribalism.

Why did Americans display a psychic immunity to the horrors of the European wars, but show such susceptibility to the Black Breath wafting from the World Trade Center? There are many reasons, but chief among them, I believe, is that we have forgotten what makes us different. President George W Bush told us that Islam is a religion of peace, and President Barack Obama told the world in 2009 at Cairo that America and Islam “overlap, and share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings”. Our clergy inform us that all adherents of the “three Abrahamic religions” are brothers under the skin sharing the same principles, and our political theorists assure us that democratic institutions eventually will make Muslim countries more or less like America.

We were told, and most of us believed, that the so-called Arab Spring of early 2011 portended a great democratic transformation of the Muslim Middle East. As the images of tech-savvy Facebook friends in Tahrir Square gave way to video clips of ravaged bodies, our faces turned gray.

It will get much, much worse. There is a reason that Syria has labored under brutal minority regimes for half a century, since the Ba’ath Party coup of 1963 led by the Christian Michel Aflaq, followed by the Alawite Assad dynasty’s assumption of power in 1971. The colonial cartographers who drew the modern map of the Middle East after World War I understood something that America’s political mainstream does not: states composed of the tribal remnants of pre-modern society can be stable only if the ethnic and sectarian melange is ruled by a minority. Syria’s Alawites ruled over a Sunni majority with Christian support, while Iraq’s Sunnis ruled over a Shi’ite majority, also with Christian support.

Tyrannical as a minority regime might be, it is constrained by the fact that it is a minority. The minority cannot exterminate the majority, so it must find some sort of compromise arrangement. A majority government, though, can (and frequently will) exterminate an ethnic or religious minority. That is why the Sunni majority in Syria long tolerated the Alawite minority regime while the Iraqi Shi’ite majority tolerated a minority Sunni regime.

Syria’s Alawites will fight to the death because a Sunni victory would mean the end of their sect, and Iran will provide unlimited numbers of weapons and fighters. Iraq’s Sunnis, divided from their Syrian cousins by the thin pencils of colonial cartographers, will not stand by and allow Syria to turn into an Iranian protectorate, while Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar support the Sunni rebels with weapons and personnel. What we have seen so far are the preliminary skirmishes. The real horrors of war are yet to come.

It will not help to stick our fingers in our ears and shout, “I can’t hear you!,” as Ron Paul and the new isolationists propose. America cannot abandon a region in which it retains vital strategic interests without disastrous consequences. But it must act in pursuit of these interests, rather than attempt to export democracy.

What America most requires is a renewed understanding of its own uniqueness, and the grim recognition that it cannot prevent civilizations that are determined to destroy themselves from doing so.

Notes:
1. Hitler’s Co-Conspirators, The Atlantic, May, 2009.
2. Is the Syrian Regime Using Rape as a Tactic of War?, Time, July 12, 2012.
3. Sir John Keegan is wrong: radical Islam could win, Asia Times Online, October 12, 2001.
4. Be Afraid – Be Very Afraid, First Things, October, 2009.

Middle East

Syria: 10 years of war has left at least 350,000 dead

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A decade of war in Syria has left more 350,200 people dead, High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet told the Human Rights Council on Friday, noting that this total was an “under-count of the actual number of killings”.

These are a result of a war that spiralled out of the 2011 uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule.

Based on the “rigorous work” of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), she said that the tally, which includes civilians and combatants, is based on “strict methodology” requiring the deceased’s full name, the date of death, and location of the body.

People behind the numbers

In the first official update on the death toll since 2014, Ms. Bachelet informed the Council that more than one in 13 of those who died due to conflict, was a woman – 26,727 in all – and almost one in 13 was a child – a grim total of 27,126 young lives lost.

The Governorate of Aleppo saw the greatest number of documented killings, with 51,731 named individuals.

Other heavy death tolls were recorded in Rural Damascus, 47,483; Homs, 40,986; Idlib, 33,271; Hama, 31,993; and Tartus, 31,369.

Behind each recorded death was a human being, born free and equal, in dignity and rights”, reminded the High Commissioner.

“We must always make victims’ stories visible, both individually and collectively, because the injustice and horror of each of these deaths should compel us to action.”

More accountability needed

Her office, OHCHR, is processing information on alleged perpetrators, recording victims civilian or combatant status and the type of weapons used, Ms. Bachelet said.

To provide a more complete picture of the scale and impact of the conflict, the UN agency has also established statistical estimation techniques to account for missing data.  

The High Commissioner explained that documenting deaths complements efforts to account for missing people and that her office has been helping the families of the missing, to engage with international human rights mechanisms.

Given the vast number of those missing in Syria, Ms. Bachelet echoed her call for an independent mechanism, with a strong international mandate, to “clarify the fate and whereabouts of missing people; identify human remains; and provide support to relatives”.

No end to the violence

Today, the daily lives of the Syrian people remain “scarred by unimaginable suffering”, the UN human rights chief said, adding that they have endured a decade of conflict, face deepening economic crisis and struggle with the impacts of COVID-19.

Extensive destruction of infrastructure has significantly affected the realization of essential economic and social rights, and there is still no end to the violence.

It is incumbent upon us all to listen to the voices of Syria’s survivors and victims, and to the stories of those who have now fallen silent for ever”, the High Commissioner concluded.

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Middle East

Lessons Learned: US Seek to Salvage their Relations with the Syrian Kurds

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The hasty retreat of the US troops from Afghanistan has left a sizeable dent in the reputation of the White House among the American public, in the Middle East and the world in general. Washington was criticised heavily for the betrayal of the Afghan government, which paved the way for Taliban to storm to power.

It’s only natural that such events created a breeding ground for uncertainty among US allies in the region. Some of them started to reevaluate their relationship with the White House after the Afghan fiasco; others were having doubts about the US’ commitment beforehand. Current situation forces Washington to take firm actions to validate their status as a powerhouse in the region. There are indicators that US leadership has found a way to regain trust from its allies starting with Kurdish armed units in Syria.

The Kurds became a key ally to the US in their quest to defeat ISIS in Syria. Washington helped to create the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who consequently established control over oil-rich regions in the north-eastern Syria. However the rapid rise of Kurdish influence triggered discontent from other parties of the Syrian conflict: the Assad government and Turkey, who considers SDF an offshoot of the PKK, designated as a terror group by the Turkish authorities. Under this pretext Ankara conducted three full-scale military operations against the Kurds in spite of its membership in the US led coalition.

Turkey remains a major headache for the US in northern Syria as it obstructs the development of a Kurdish autonomy. US failure to act during the Turkish offensive on Al-Bab and then Afrin is still considered one of the most agonizing experiences in the recent history of American-Kurdish partnership. On the flip side, this relationship had its bright moments. US forces were persistent in their cooperation with the Kurds despite Donald Trump’s efforts to withdraw US military presence from Syria. Furthermore, former Pentagon’s chief James Mattis increased funding of SDF in 2019 to a record high of $300 million.

Although the US cut back its support for the Kurds after proclaiming victory over ISIS, it’s still sufficient for SDF to stay among the most combat-capable forces in Syria. US provide machinery, equipment and ammunition, but most importantly teach the Kurds the skills to profit from their resources. Besides training SDF rank soldiers, the American troops prepare their special forces HAT (Hêzên Antî Teror, Anti-Terror Forces) primarily tasked with establishing security on oil facilities as well as detection and elimination of terrorists. In terms of their equipment they practically hold their own even against US troops. During their operations HAT fighters use standardized weaponry, night goggles and other modern resources.

Regardless of all the US aid military capabilities of SDF have one critical vulnerability, namely the lack of air defense. This weakness is successfully exploited by Turkey who uses their drones to bomb Kurdish positions. For the last couple of months the number of air strikes has significantly increased, which brought SDF to find new methods of deflecting air attacks.

There are good grounds to believe that Washington accommodated their partner’s troubles. Thus a source from an US air-base in Middle-East who asked to keep his name and position anonymous told us that on the 18th of September three combat-capable trainer aircraft T-6 Texan have been deployed to Tell Beydar air-base in Hasakah province, Syria. According to the source American instructors have begun a crash course in air pilotage with the candidates picked form the SDF ranks long before the airplanes arrived to their destination. This is implicitly confirmed by the large shipment of US weaponry, machinery and ammunition to Tell Beydar delivered on the 17th of September that included missiles compatible with Texan aircraft.

The sole presence of airplanes, even trainer aircraft, prompts a change in the already existing power balance. T-6 Texan can be used not only for air cover but also as a counter tool to Turkish “Bayraktar” UAVs especially if US grant Kurds access to intel from the radars situated on US air bases. Ultimately, from Turkey’s standpoint it must look like an attempt from the US military to create PKK’s own air force.

This being said the US are better off using political means rather than military if the goal is to handicap Turkish interests in Syria. The groundwork for this has been laid thanks to a reshuffle in the White House under Biden administration. First came the resignation of former US Special Representative for Syria Engagement James F. Jeffrey infamous for his soft spot for Turkey, who has been openly promoting pro-Turkish views in the White House during his tenure. In addition to the loss of their man in Washington, Turkey has gained a powerful adversary represented by the new National Security Council coordinator for the Middle-East and North Africa Brett McGurk. McGurk is a polar opposite to Jeffrey and has sided with the Kurds on numerous occasions. He is well respected among the leaders of SDF because of his work as Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to counter ISIS.

The only yet the most important question that is yet to be answered is the position of US president Joe Biden. So far Biden’s administration has been avoiding radical shifts regarding its Syria policy. Development of cooperation with the Kurds considering they have proven their reliability might come as a logical solution that will also allow the White House to show their teeth. Washington cannot endure another Afghanistan-like fiasco that will destroy their reputation figuratively and their allies literally. Even with all possible negative outcomes taken into account the enhancement of cooperation with the Kurds outweighs the drawbacks and remains the optimal route for the US.

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Turkish Geopolitics and the Kabul Airport Saga

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Image credit: Hurriyet daily news

The Taliban’s ultimate agreement to a prominent Turkish security presence at Afghanistan’s only airport completes an important power-play for the latter. Ankara wishes to establish itself as a dominant player in the post-U.S. withdrawal Afghan affairs, ensuring that the U.S. looks to it as an ideal partner for its future policies in Afghanistan. It is in this context that Turkey having overcome the formerly heated rejections by the Taliban of its proposed role at the airport is highly significant as it portends the closer integration of Afghanistan into familiar Turkish geopolitical agendas.

Turkey’s Afghan power-play and the U.S.

Turkey’s announcement in June of plans to militarily manage the security at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport with U.S. financial support incensed the Taliban.

By not consulting or informing the powerful Islamist group on such a major issue in a post-withdrawal Afghanistan, Turkey signaled its view of the Taliban as inimical non-state actors lacking the stature to act upon the pretext of Afghan sovereignty. Indeed, President Tayyip Erdogan accused the Taliban of the ‘occupation’ of the Afghan territory in response to their warnings that Turkey’s airport plan violated the Doha Accords in terms of the exit of all foreign forces from Afghanistan and that they would harshly react to it.

The Taliban’s near-effortless takeover of Kabul in mid-August seemed to close the chapter on the airport saga, but deadly ISIS bombings near the airport two weeks later forced the new regime to consider external help in filling the Afghan security vacuum.

Consequently, Turkey gained not only an acquiescence from Afghanistan’s strongest faction to its desired role at the airport but also an affirmation of its capacity to face down and override local actors as a foreign power seeking to guide its Afghan initiatives to fruition.

This may appeal strongly to the U.S., which has increased its geoeconomic interests in Afghanistan in parallel with the process of its military disengagement from the country. These interests take the form of large infrastructure trade projects of a regional scale and would benefit if shielded from the whims of domestic Afghan factions that tend to cripple governance and policy implementation. Ankara’s assertive posture during the airport tussle with the Taliban helps it pitch itself to Washington as capable of doing precisely this.

The Central Asia factor

These trade infrastructure projects in Afghanistan aim to develop it as a transit hub for Central Asian trade to extra-regional markets as outlined in the U.S. ‘Strategy for Central Asia 2019-25’. The U.S. affords considerable importance to this strategy both as a means of rebuilding Afghanistan and providing the Central Asian states with new trade routes that do not need to transit the territory of Russia, their former Soviet patron and America’s great-power rival.

Turkey shares the goal of increasing Central Asia’s global connectivity, whilst envisioning itself the natural leader and conduit for the Turkic Central Asian states’ growing socio-economic bonds with the outside world. By acting as a lead-from-the-front partner for the U.S. in the post-withdrawal Afghanistan, Turkey can persuade the U.S. to entrust it with the Afghan leg of the Strategy for Central Asia.

Turkey could then inculcate the progress of its own connectivity projects for Central Asia into the U.S. priorities as a premium of sorts for its services tackling Afghanistan-based risks and hazards to the U.S. Strategy for Central Asia. These Turkish-led projects include the East West Trans-Caspian Middle Corridor (connecting Turkmenistan-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan to Europe via the Caspian Sea-South Caucasus-Turkey route) and its Eastern spur for Afghanistan, the Lapis Lazuli Corridor (connecting northwest Afghanistan via Turkmenistan to the same Caspian Sea-South Caucasus-Turkey route to Europe).

The text of the US Strategy for Central Asia does mention and pledge favourable visa and customs policies for the Lapis Lazuli Corridor, but does not mention the Middle Corridor or Turkey at all. The absence of the latter two key names indicates that U.S. backing for the Lapis Lazuli Corridor likely owed to the simple fact that it directly includes Afghanistan and has already been functional since December 2018. Thus, the U.S. does not formally endorse the East-West connectivity for Central Asia—which Turkey specializes at—under the rubric of its Strategy for Central Asia.

“Senior [Trump] administration officials have expressed support for specific infrastructure projects—such as, notably, Georgia’s deep-water port project in Anaklia—but without having cast them as part of a broader regional agenda,” commented Middle East Institute scholar Dr John Calabrese on the erstwhile Donald Trump administration’s position on the Middle Corridor months before the Strategy on Central Asia’s release.

All this greatly limits the pool of U.S. financial and political support that Turkey could tap into for developing and expanding the Middle Corridor, which is the lynchpin for its push for pan-Turkic leadership. Ankara’s remedy for this problem, however, may lie in gaining the mentioned lead-from-the-front ally status vis-a-vis the U.S. in Afghanistan.

As observed by the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute’s Chairman and Director Frederick Starr and Svante Cornell, the present U.S. approach represents important shifts in the American conceptualization of Afghanistan and Central Asia relative to each other. These are a departure from the long-standing tendency to ‘view Central Asia as an appendix to Afghanistan policy’ and an embrace of Central Asia as a bloc. Both these shifts laid the basis for the U.S. Afghan policy to take its cue from Central Asia’s development. Officially mandating the development of an East-West transport corridor from Central Asia to Europe—in short, Turkey’s Middle Corridor—is the next logical step in this paradigm.

Starr and Cornell, leading proponents in the U.S. policy advocacy community for treating Afghanistan as part of Central Asia, identify the East-West transport corridor as crucial to the Strategy for Central Asia and criticize the document for not mentioning it.

Thus, from its position in Afghanistan, Turkey can orient the inputs it feeds back to its diplomatic and military partners in Washington around the case for the merger of the U.S. Afghanistan and Central Asia policies that Starr and Cornel advocate. The U.S. will expect actionable suggestions from its top consultative partner for Afghanistan to actualize this merger, paving the way for Turkey to impactfully pitch the Middle Corridor as the solution.

This could well become an elusive opening that Turkey has long needed to bridge the chasm between the Middle Corridor’s innate appeal to the U.S. great-power sensitivities underpinning its Central Asia posture and the U.S. seeming disinterest in the corridor. After all, the Middle Corridor bypasses Russia, challenging its monopoly over Central Asia’s trade routes. It also acts as what Starr describes as a ‘Land Suez’ for China to connect to Europe—reducing China’s reliance on transiting Russia for this purpose and offsetting, from Washington’s perspective, the prospect of its two great-power rivals’ geoeconomic priorities aligning too closely.

Subsequent U.S. endorsement of the Middle Corridor would stimulate greater U.S. investment in the mega-project, hitherto limited by the Strategy for Central Asia’s non-mention of East-West connectivity as explored prior.

In addition to this, the Middle Corridor could become an agenda item in multilateral platforms for Central Asia, such as the C5+1, set up by the U.S. with a focus on the Afghan-Central Asian connectivity. This would prop up advocates in Turkic Central Asia for a formal embrace of an Ankara-led Turkic bloc by enabling them to present this as part of the institutionalization of Central Asian affairs as opposed to a pro-Turkish tilt which might alarm Russia, who has a past record of reacting forcefully to external powers engaging in bloc-building in its former Soviet backyard in Eurasia. This will greatly benefit Turkey.

Restoring balance with the West

Afghanistan can arguably bring Turkey’s ideologically-driven desire to carve a Turkic bloc from Central Asia and its more general desire to mitigate the strains in bilateral ties with the U.S. closer together than any other foreign policy file in Ankara.

Linked to Central Asia or not, Afghanistan stands out as a vacuum left by American strategic miscalculations at the regional doorstep of several U.S. rivals. Turkish initiatives, such as the Kabul airport project, clearly designed to preserve U.S. stakes in Afghanistan—at a time when Russia, Iran and China appear poised to capitalize on the U.S. shrinking presence there—can inject fresh credibility into Turkey’s historical image as the West’s Eurasian vanguard.

This will help President Erdogan as he tries to stabilize relations with the U.S. against their list of disputes, from Turkey’s purchase of Russian air defense systems to the U.S. support for Kurdish groups near the Turkish-Syrian border and beyond. Additionally, President Joe Biden faces mounting public and political pressure at home over the rapid collapse of the former U.S.-backed Kabul government in the Taliban’s wake; in this context, Turkey volunteering itself as a new and coherent vehicle for U.S. interests in Afghanistan may prove the very ice-breaker Erdogan needs for his notably bleak relationship with Biden.

However much progress Ankara makes in these endeavours, its headstrong approach and eventual success in securing a role at Kabul’s airport points to strategic clarity and an expectation of Afghanistan’s seamless integration into Turkish geopolitics.

From our partner RIAC

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