Compared to how much has been written on the Sunni-Alawite dynamics in the Syrian civil war, little analysis exists on the Druze aspect of the conflict.
This study hopes to rectify the deficiency by considering the nature of Druze militias operating in the south of Syria, specifically in Suwayda, Deraa and Damascus governorates where Druze populations are concentrated.
The Principle of Self-Defense
The most prominent name for Druze militias appears to be “Jaysh al-Muwahhideen” (“Army of the Monotheists/Unitarians”), echoing the Druze’s self-description as “muwahhideen” emphasizing the strict unity of God. Most notably, here is a video from the beginning of this year of a statement from a “Jaysh al-Muwahhideen” militia in Jabal al-Arab (Mountain of the Arabs), also known as “Jabal ad-Druze”: a mountainous area of Suwayda governorate primarily inhabited by Druze.
In the video, the speaker declares that the army is “under the leadership of Abu Ibrahim Ismail al-Tamimi…we are the Muslim Unitarian Druze sect…we have been and continue to be defenders of our property and sons, and protectors for them.”
He also characterizes the struggle as a “jihad” but it is framed in purely defensive terms: that is, anyone who commits aggression on the Druze land of Jabal al-Arab- regardless of his/her affiliation- will suffer consequences at the hands of the Jaysh al-Muwahhideen, for they are not afraid of fighting in defence of their people. The statement was released in light of attacks on Druze in Suwayda governorate at the hands of gangs coming from Deraa, including the kidnapping of Druze youth referenced in the video.
The reference to my fellow Tamimi tribesman Abu Ibrahim Ismail al-Tamimi is an important part of Druze identity here. Abu Ibrahim was an early Druze leader who succeeded Hamza ibn Ali, who is considered to be the founder of the Druze sect during the reign of the Fatimid caliph al-Hakim in the eleventh century. While Hamza is thought to embody the principle of al-‘aql (“mind”) in Druze doctrine, Abu Ibrahim represents nafs (“soul”). Within Jaysh al-Muwahhideen social media circles, one finds the name of “Jaysh Abu Ibrahim” being used alongside Jaysh al-Muwahhideen.
The video linked to above illustrates the main Druze priority in the Syrian civil war: namely, to protect the community’s land and honor. This principle is corroborated by interviews I conducted with the activists behind a Jaysh al-Muwahhideen Facebook page and a purely online support page called “Katiba al-Muwahhideen”(“Battalion of the Unitarians”). Thus, the former stressed that the Druze militia is not concerned with “attacking the terrorists, but defense of land and honor (not aggression). We only defend.” The latter similarly emphasized defending the Druze online.
Showing Support for Assad
While the focus on self-defense suggests political neutrality in theory (and indeed, the Katiba stated to me that they are not affiliated with any political faction), in practice the Druze militias will side with the local strong actor who can guarantee the preservation of Druze land.
Combined with concern regarding the likes of Jabhat al-Nusra, who have for many months played a key role in fighting on the Deraa front in particular, working with a variety of factions, and apparently being responsible for a recent bomb attack in Suwayda city, it follows that Jaysh al-Muwahhideen circles make a show of demonstrating Druze loyalty to the Assad regime.
Thus, the Katiba affirmed to me that in Jabal al-Arab and Jabal al-Sheikh, “people’s committees for the protection of villages and towns” have been formed to fight against “terrorism,” working “in cooperation with the Syrian army.” The Katiba also praised the Syrian army as non-sectarian, claiming that “the Syrian Arab Army is for all Syria. In it are Druze, Alawites, Sunnis, and Christians. Not only Druze. We [i.e. the Druze of Jabal al-Arab and Suwayda, where the activists are based] have brought forth a thousand martyrs in the Syrian Arab Army in the defense of the nation and we are prepared to bring forth more.”
An important aspect of the concepts of Druze loyalty to the Syrian nation is anti-colonialism, and the Druze role in uprisings against Ottoman and French rule. Hence, the Katiba affirmed to me that “all in Syria know that we [the Druze] do not attack anyone, we only defend, thus we fought Ottoman and French colonization and expelled them from our land.” The fighting against the Ottomans is referring to the multiple Druze revolts against the Ottomans.
In 1842, there was a revolt against direct Ottoman rule under ‘Umar Pasha following on from conflict with the Maronites. Later, Druze peasant agitation beginning in 1888 developed into a revolt by 1889 in response to repeated attempts by Ottoman authorities to bring Jabal al-Hawran (later to become Jabal ad-Druze, with widespread Druze settlement in the latter half of the 19th century) under direct Ottoman rule from Damascus. The revolt ultimately failed as Ottoman troops poured into Jabal al-Hawran and bombarded Suwayda in 1890.
Towards the end of the Ottoman Empire, refusal by the Druzes of Jabal to take part in a census ordered in 1908 led to a full-scale Ottoman invasion of the Jabal, followed by disarmament, conscription of Druze into the Ottoman army, and execution of a number of Druze sheikhs. However, Ottoman troops withdrew by 1911, which meant the Druze could revert to autonomy.
While the Druze came to support the “Arab Revolt” in the First World War, dissatisfaction with French rule led to a Druze revolt in 1925 that then took on a nationalist element spurred on by some of the Druze chieftains’ sympathy with Arab nationalism. Thus in 1926, Druze leader Sultan al-Atrash insisted that the Druze would not lay down arms unless the French recognized the “complete independence of Syria.”
Although the revolt ultimately failed in 1927 and led to the designation of a separate Jabal ad-Druze state, the revolt had inspired a younger generation of Druze with nationalist romanticism- just as many younger Alawites were beginning to adopt ideas of Syrian nationalism- and by 1936 Jabal ad-Druze was incorporated into Syria.
Sentiment about union with Syria was of course sharply divided among the Druze, as was the case among the Alawites. During the 1936 negotiations, both Alawite and Druze leaders sent petitions insisting on remaining separate from Syria, and appealing to Jewish PM Leon Blum’s supposed Zionist sentiments. For the Druze militia circles today, however, it is the unionist side that is commemorated.
Conclusion: Separatism? Alliance with Israel?
It would be a mistake to characterize all Druze who have taken up arms in the Syrian civil war as staunchly pro-regime. Some form of distinction from the above evidence can be made between Druze irregulars and those who fight in the Syrian army- principally on the basis that the former are defined by their anonymity.
At the same time, one must be skeptical of narratives pointing to a supposedly growing Syrian Druze separatist trend. For instance, Hussein Ibish contends that Druze “militias are becoming increasingly independent and generally no longer work with government forces.” There is no evidence to support this view.
On the contrary, the support for Assad emphasized in Jaysh al-Muwahhideen/Abu Ibrahim media circles (including those featuring anonymous Druze fighters), together with the testimony of Katiba al-Muwahhideen, the apparent Jaysh al-Muwahhideen martyrdoms in Jaramana, and the large and continuous stream of Druze martyrdoms for the Syrian army point to three things.
First, of the Druze who have taken up arms, a majority have done so on the side of the Assad regime. Second, there are still generally close ties between Druze irregulars and the Syrian army, mainly under the guise of people’s protection committees. Third, even if actually autonomous, Druze militiamen generally want to show ties of loyalty to the regime and the Syrian nation.
Could this all change? Yes. A loss of willingness to support the regime might occur, for example, if it were being perceived that regime forces are losing much ground and on an irreversible and major retreat from Suwayda and Deraa governorates. At the present time, nothing points to such a picture on the battlefield. Druze irregulars might also turn decisively against the regime if, say, the Syrian army were forcing Druze off their land to take up firing positions against rebels. Yet this seems unlikely.
We should equally dismiss the notion touted recently in some Israeli press circles of a Druze state emerging from the fragmentation of Syria and aligning with Israel. Besides the problems of the viability of a Druze state (such as the means of supporting an economy), Druze in Syria fall in line with most of the Syrian Arab population (including Alawites and Christians) in having an existential hatred of Israel: that is, not wanting Israel to exist in any form. Indeed, the Jaysh al-Muwahhideen circles continue to highlight the issue of the “occupied Golan.”
From the Israeli side, experience has shown that getting involved in multipolar civil wars by propping up one side- as was the case in Lebanon- ends in disaster. In the long-run, the rebel presence in Suwayda, Deraa and Damascus governorates is unlikely to be purged completely. Even in the event of a peace agreement entailing de facto partition, the Assad regime is likely to retain the southern and western areas of Syria. Israeli pundits’ hopes of minority allies remain illusory, as Israeli officials maintain a more sober policy of overall neutrality while launching airstrikes to prevent those who might wish to wage war on Israel from acquiring new weaponry and providing occasional medical aid to refugees.
To sum up, the Druze community in Syria as a whole remains tied to the regime, whether out of genuine pro-Assad sentiment or belief in the regime as its only viable protector[iv] and there is unlikely to be a profound shift in the orientation of the Syrian Druze community, at least in the near future.
Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi is a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University, and a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
 Note this Jabhat al-Nusra Deraa council statement from May warning the Druze against supporting the Assad regime and highlighting a supposed policy of protecting Christian villages.
 The increasing prominence of Jabhat al-Nusra on the Deraa front has recently been noted by some analysts (e.g. Kirk Sowell). Previously, some saw Deraa as an example of a shift to a more ‘mainstream’/Salim Idriss SMC-aligned insurgency. I would clarify that while Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham may be smaller numerically than in the north and east, nothing supports the idea of a contrast whereby southern rebels are more likely to be hostile to these jihadi factions than in the north.The picture is rather of mixed views on the whole. At any rate, there is a risk of downplaying Jabhat al-Nusra’s role in Deraa in earlier months (see my articles here and here). The group has consistently maintained overall good working relations with a variety of rebel factions in Deraa.
 In the account of the anti-colonial Druze history narrative that follows I am reliant on Kais Firro’s “A History of the Druzes,” Brill (Leiden, 1992).
 To be contrasted perhaps with an overall display of neutrality earlier on when the outcome of the unrest in Syria seemed highly uncertain.
An Enemy Among Us
The upcoming talks regarding the tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, that are due to take place on January 25, should not disillusion us from the dangers of Turkey’s unilateral aggression on all fronts. Erdogan has made no real efforts to improve ties with the EU, except for the occasional vain promise of turning over a new leaf. Since October, he has urged the Muslim world to boycott French products, continued gas exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean, blatantly ignored the arms embargo in Libya and has aided Azerbaijan in committing war crimes in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Despite the numerous warnings issued by the EU and the many failed attempts at resolving the crisis in the East Med diplomatically, the latest EU summit concluded with an anti-climactic promise to sanction certain Turkish officials regarding the East Med. This minimally symbolic promise could only be described as a mere slap on the wrist that will prove unsuccessful in deterring Turkey’s belligerent tendencies. Turkey’s increasingly hostile attitude, its callous use of the refugee crisis and its clear violation of international law in the East Med, Libya, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh represent a danger to European values, identity and security.
We are witnessing before our eyes a dictator in the making who dreams of a return of the Ottoman empire and seeks to destroy the democratic and secular legacy of Atatürk. He is a fervent supporter of political islam – particularly the muslim brotherhood – and he relentlessly accuses the West of wanting to ‘relaunch the crusades’ against Islam. In fact, since 2014, Erdogan and the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) have continuously facilitated cross-border movement into Syria and shipped illegal arms to a number of radical jihadist groups. The Turkish government also uses SADAT Defense, an islamist paramilitary group loyal to Erdogan, to aid groups that can be considered as terrorist organizations such as Sultan Murad Division and Ahrar al-Sham in Northern Syria and use their jihadi fighters to send to Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh and, most recently, Kashmir in order to bolster Turkey’s foreign policy.
Erdogan uses a mixture of islamism and nationalism to expand Turkey’s influence around the world and to consolidate power within. The two most influential factions in Turkey are the radical islamists and secular neo-nationalists, who despise each other but share a deep disdain for the west. Courtesy of neo-nationalist and former Maoist terrorist leader Dogu Perinçek, the NATO member has also enjoyed warmer ties with Russia and China over the past 5 years. As a result of these shifts in alliances and growing anti-western sentiments, Turkey is becoming increasingly at odds with the West.
Furthermore, the growing discontent at home pushes him to adopt more aggressive tactics, divisive policies and his behavior mirrors that of a panicked authoritarian leader. Erdogan is desperately looking for a conflict to distract the Turkish population from the fall of the lira, the spread and mishandling of COVID-19, and the overall declining economy that predates the pandemic. Turkey’s future will most likely be determined by the upcoming general election that is set to take place within the next three years. If Erdogan wins the next election, it will solidify his power and bring him one step closer in turning Turkey into a dictatorship. During his stay in power, he has already conducted a series of purges to weaken and silence dissidents. Turkey now has the most imprisoned journalists in the world.
Yet, the loss of Istanbul and Ankara in the last municipal election of 2019 demonstrate his declining popularity, and offer a glimmer of hope for the opposition. Political figures like the new mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem İmamoğlu, or the new mayor of Ankara, Mansur Yavaş, represent a brighter future for Turkey. Erdogan currently finds himself in a position of weakness, which represents a rare window of opportunity for the EU to strike. Unfortunately, the EU remains deeply divided on how to handle a situation that continues to deteriorate. It seems that some member states, particularly Germany, are holding on to the naive belief that Erdogan can still be reasoned with.
Our reluctance to impose the slightest sanctions against Turkey demonstrates our division and weakness, which emboldens the neo-sultan. A strong and united response from the European Union is the only way to curb Erdogan’s expansionist agenda. This should include renegotiating the migrant pact, imposing targeted sanctions against SADAT Defense and its leader Adnan Tanrıverdi, imposing an arms embargo, suspending the EU-Turkey customs union and finally suspending Turkey’s membership in NATO.
Ultimately, Erdogan’s bellicose foreign policy and his contentious nationalist-islamist rhetoric makes it impossible to consider Erdogan’s Turkey as our ally. As the EU reaches out yet another olive branch, Erdogan has his eye on the wars to come.
Is Erdogan’s Obsession with Demirtas a Personal Vendetta or a Calculated Strategy?
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) Grand Chamber ruled that the former co-chair of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtaş must be immediately released. The Court ruled that his years-long detention “had pursued the ulterior purpose of stifling pluralism and limiting freedom of political debate”. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan swiftly reacted to the ECHR’s ruling and characterized the decision as ‘hypocritical’ and accused the Court of defending a ‘terrorist.’
To many, Erdogan’s reaction to the Court’s ruling should not be a surprise,but his resentment and anger toward Demirtaş are quite shocking. So, why does Erdogan pursue a vendetta against him? Or is it a calculated political strategy? How could Demirtaş’s release affect the political landscape in Turkey? What could be the implications of releasing or not releasing him be on the US-Turkey relations during the Biden era?
Yes, the ECHR’s ruling is a significant and expected development. What is more significant is that Erdogan’s quick reaction shows his deeply rooted frustration with Demirtaş, which dates back to the pre-June 2015 elections. In March 2015,Demirtaş made a short but a spectacular speech at the Turkish Parliament when he said, “we will not make you the President.” He also said, “We are not a movement of bargaining, a party of bargaining. There has never been a dirty deal between us and the Justice and Development Party (AKP), and there will never be…” His reference to ‘dirty deal’ was believed to be an offer from the AKP to HDP in exchange for support during the general election. In the June 2015 election, HDP managed to secure the electoral threshold with 13% vote for the first time in the pro-Kurdish parties’ history. Additionally, they secured 80 seats in parliament which made them the second biggest opposition party in Turkey. This was an unprecedented victory for the pro-Kurdish party and a breakthrough in Turkish political history. It is fair to say that, based on the author’s experience, Demirtaş’s rising charisma has become a liability, not only for Erdogan but also for Ocalan, PKK’s once unquestionable leader.
Erdoğan’s hateful outburst towards the call for Demirtaş’s release is more about Erdoğan’s political self-interest and concerns than his personal vendetta. Demirtaş’s release could likely have far bigger implications on the political calculations in Turkey. They would primarily impact on the future of the People’s Alliance, the coalition between the Justice and Development Party (AK) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), where AKP focuses its efforts to maintain control over the Kurdish issue. For the AKP, having an alliance with the MHP has been beneficial so far but not without major tradeoffs. These includethe MHP’s stance against the Kurdish issue and its eroding voter support nationwide.
AKP’s strategy to maintain power partly relies on its ability to create factions within the existing political parties. The pro-Kurdish parties are no exception. Strategies include consolidating Kurdish votes around AKP or dividing them to create enough division as to not let the HDP run as one single dominant Kurdish party in the next elections.
Demirtaş’s release could pose risks for AKP’s three-fold strategy: Dominate, divide and maintain the status quo. First, by arresting MPs, local politicians, mayors, and activists, AKP aimed to paralyze and dominate the Kurdish voter base. So, preventing Demirtaş’s release could serve to kill the electoral enthusiasm at the party’s voting base and prevent unity among the Kurdish constituency. Demirtaş’s potential release could give rise to his popularity, not only among the Kurdish voters but also the left-wing secularists. Such a scenario could force the AKP towards more pro-Kurdish narratives and policies that could eventually weaken the AKP-MHP coalition.
Second, dividing and deepening fractions; and creating splinter parties would mean that the HDP could not consolidate the Kurdish constituency. Although having a smaller base, an Islamist Kurdish Free Cause Party (Hüda-Par)has supported Erdogan during the 2018 Presidential election. They are a group with alleged ties with the Kurdish Hezbollah, which has committed the atrocities in Turkey in the 1990s and early 2000s.Recently, the leader of Hüda-Par expressed his disappointment with ECHR’s ruling after he paid a visit to Erdogan in the Presidential Palace. Another example is establishing the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), allegedly politically in line with Barzani’s tradition, to divide HDP votes.
Third, by cutting new deals with Öcalan again, they aim to appeal to his supporters to maintain the status quo. Just like during the local elections in 2019, AKP might take another step to re-instrumentalize Öcalan despite his failed emissary role in the last Istanbul local re-run. Öcalan called for HDP’s neutrality, which meant not supporting the opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu. Öcalan’s message was contradicting with HDP’s former co-chair Selahattin Demirtas’s call for support for Imamoglu. Though AKP’s strategy of revitalizing Öcalan may not produce the desired outcome for AKP, it could buy some time by diverting public attention from the victimhood of Demirtaş and HDP.
While releasing Demirtas could pose challenges for the AKP and its leader Erdogan domestically, not releasing him could prove costly. As a pragmatic leader as anyone could be, to survive politically Erdogan has made several U-turns domestically and internationally. Facing an economic crisis and continuing decline in approval ratings Erdogan could, unwillingly, comply with the Court’s ruling. This could help him have a fresh start with President-elect Biden, who called Erdogan an autocrat.
Regardless of whether he would be released or not, as a political leader, Demirtaş will dominate domestic politics in Turkey and continue to be a critical actor in the region vis-à-vis the Kurdish issue.
Saudi-Turkey Discourse: Is a Resolve Imminent?
The two prominent Muslim countries: Saudi Arabia and Turkey have had an undulating relationship over the course of decades and despite of the geographical and religious proximity, the two have rarely been on the same page. Recent tide over the relation is an outcry by the Saudi Chambers of Commerce to ‘Boycott everything Turkish’. Allegedly the boycott spans over a wide range: level of investment in the country, tourism interchange and even the imports are to be curbed. This was deemed as a “moral responsibility” of every Saudi citizen against the nation’s enemies; as per the statement of Saudi’s Chamber of Commerce head Ajlan Al Ajlan.
The duo have taken opposing sides for decades, especially when it narrows down to regional conflicts. The history relays strong relations between the two Sunni-majority Muslim countries, however, with polar position in the Syrian crisis followed by a blood-ridden civil war, the relations never recovered to a modest degree. The Saudi Kingdom, under the premiership of Muhammad Bin Salman, shifted its Syria policy in late 2018, seeking to normalize Assad’s regime while Turkey continued to support the opposing forces. Meanwhile, in Libya, Riyadh aided warlord Khalifa Haftar, while Ankara intervened to channel militarily assistance to the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA).
The relations between the two Islamic nations were again triggered by the statement of Turkish president, Receb Tayyib Erdogen, accusing the Gulf nations for the instability in the region. This was the statement that incited such a hoarse reaction from the economic entity within the kingdom. The tie between the two was never a strong one but a major incident strained the relations back in 2018. The murder of Saudi citizen and a columnist of The Washington Post, Jamal Ahmed Khashoggi, back in October 2018 set all fires loose when Saudi government was outright accused of involvement in the brutal murder at Saudi Consulate. The Turkish president went as far as insinuating the involvement of crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, in the gruesome murder. Earlier in 2017, Ankara stood as a vital support mechanism, alongside Tehran,to Doha in terms of the rudimentary facets of finance and military when Qatar was excluded and sectionalised by Saudi Arabia and its allies on account of close affiliation with rebellious groups in the region backed by Iran; accounts that were repeatedly denied by the Qatari regime.
The two Islamic republics have been at head once again ever since the recent controversial decision of UAE, Bahrain and Morocco to join hands and normalise relations with Israel came to light. Turkey and Iran, despite of the Shia-Sunni disparity, have relatively been close in ties since both have stood at odds with the foreign involvement in the region while Saudi Arabia has welcomed it with open arms. Even with the normalisation of relations with Israel, UAE and Bahrain met heavy criticism around the Muslim world but majorly championed by Iran and Turkey: former calling the move as a “Stab in the back” while the latter threatening to sever ties with the Gulf states. Both the statements were shrugged by the Saudi representatives as an ‘internal matter’ and warning the duo to refrain from interference. The Saudi position on the normalisation was clear when Israeli flights were allowed to fly through the Kingdom’s airspace en route to UAE.
The growing animosity is not novel between the duo as they have been in contrasting positions on multiple foreign policy issues and have even held starkly different positions over the islamist groups operating in the west European region. Although Saudi government officials have not confirmed the implication of the statement of its Chamber of Commerce, the signs of blooming tensions were sensed earlier this year. Even pre-Covid, the tourism dropped 17% between the countries and Turkey, being the 12th highest trade partner of the kingdom, saw a steady decline in bi-lateral trade. Albeit the externalities of the pandemic, the relations continue to deteriorate, and the signs might turn more apparent over time.
Now with Mr. Joe Biden prepared to take on the United States’ foreign policy, the Middle East would be the prime focus as per his pensive thoughts over the issues of the region. As he mentioned to ‘Reassess’ the relations with Saudi Arabia, the regard is clearly in terms of Saudi’s nefarious role in fanning the steps of Trump in the region, more specifically its involvement in the Yemen civil war and the controversial killing of the Washington Post columnist, Jamal Ahmed Khashoggi. With isolation looming and need for solid alliance for better foundations for US relations, Saudi Arabia may have started with reconciling with Qatar but Turkey is optimistically the next on the radar.
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