Several conflicts happening in various capacities over the region of North Syria has been practicing since the mid-Arab Spring. The issue has become supraterritorial case and Turkish political environment is also being affected from the contemporary developments.
How are the domestic status quo and strategic maneuvers of Turkish foreign policy towards Northern Syria changed? By two diverse developments in external and internal agenda. On one hand, soft power politics have failed and could not meet Turkish national interests anymore. On the other, dominant politicians in the conservative right are beating the drum of national security; they have exceeded country’s threat level in order to overshadow disappointing results of last election and regain their political popularity once again.
The decision matrix of foreign policy moves provides many options to states in order to implement in different environments and centuries. Variables of international conjuncture and geographical status quos have been playing crucial roles in accordance with these developments. For instance, although dreadnought diplomacy or Bismarck-oriented “realpolitik” was perceived as an operative solution until early 20th century world affairs, late 20th century politics have validated that soft power ideology and cultural diplomacy could also occupy a prominent position within the modern foreign policy statecrafts. Nevertheless, compact geographical hostilities generating large scale imbalances may “force” states to switch their insights towards the sphere of influence that they decided to apply soft power politics. Against this theoretical backdrop, the Arab Spring could provide a case for assessing possible changes in Turkish foreign policy calculations and behaviours. It can be put forward that until, Muhammad Boazizi’s, an average street vendor, self-immolation in 2010, Turkey’s external relations with its close neighbours in the upper Saharan region were following principles of reciprocal understanding and tolerated politics which chiefly based on pragmatic soft power implications such as “cultural proximity” and “role modeling figure” under neo-liberal Islamism doctrine.
As Arab Spring phenomenon has been extended its impacts within defined geography and proved its continuance in the region, driving forces of Turkish foreign policy have altered in parallel to changing equilibrium within Middle East. In this sense, the level of gradual shifts in Turkish foreign decisions over Middle East has been composing of many diverse ways. To exemplify the notable shift it can be argued that while Turkey’s insightful politics on Assad regime were depending on regional cooperation principle and even strategic partnership, present-day’s “zero tolerance” tendency was out of the question. At the beginning of the Arab Spring, the international community observed that Turkey, under the rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) established close bonds with Syria and trying to persuade the Assad regime to solve social unrest by implementing smoother and inclusionary internal politics rather than exacerbating the crisis.
On the basis of the dialog platform, Turkey has comprehended that soft power diplomacy with Syria could serve to establish collective interests of both countries since the idea has proved its effectiveness in terms of improving twofold commerce or cultural interaction between countries for many years. Throughout this dialog process, Turkey’s foreign trade with Syria surpassed 400 million dollar per year1 and tourism between two countries rose by an average of 3% per year2 until 2011. Although soft power politics can contribute enhancing trade activities and enlargement of cultural ties, it may fail to launch critical dialogues on delicate topics which may pave the way to question countries’ sovereignty and lawfulness such as massive killings or religious clashes. Therefore, it should have been premeditated by Turkish policy makers that overlooking the main reasons of civil unrest and offering democratic solutions to such a complex internal anxiety would not be internalized by Baath hardliners who came to power by 1963 Syrian coup d’état. A soft power oriented “Zero Problem” doctrine was satisfactory for Turkish government in order to enhance regional trade partnership in Middle East and the ideology was supported by the AKP. After threatening cases were crossed over as the increasing tensions around Turkish Embassy of Damascus in 2011 regional leadership politics, state sovereignty issues were started to be concentrated around Assad’s legitimacy.
Turkey’s “practical advice” policy which was developed to ease tensions between the Assad regime and rebels fractionally gave its way to “sovereignty” dialogues discussing Syria’s legitimacy to use national army against insurrectionists. The case attested that economic benefit and role modeling figure objectives, under soft power ideology as a foreign policy, could not achieve Turkey’s regional balance of power role per se because uncontrolled internal violence in Syria was signaling further armed confrontation between opposition groups which have been clashing since “The Damascus Spring” in 2001. In parallel to this process, considering the longest border with Syria, the Turkish attitude has modified neorealist “self-help” strategy which mainly based upon martial coercion against the Assad regime as a dissident player. This movement was supported by implementing security discourses to national agenda on Syria which has been driven by the recent issues such as Pro-Assad groups’ attacks to Turkish Embassy in Damascus in 20113, following to that Turkish F-4 plane crash in 20124 and the huge influx of Syrian refugees5 apart from the past practices of water sources crises6, Hatay province case7 and father Assad’s support to PKK extensions in Syria8. By virtue of decline in soft power politics and recent disputes, the new parameter has become as the new and most effective variable: the Turkish parliamentary elections of June 2015.
During the last single party rule of AKP, Turkish external policies over Northern Syria have warned for an escalation in the severity of armed clashes-toughness in this region. Critical media organs’ assertions such as providing logistic support to radical religious groups9 and National Intelligence Service’s truck scandal which was accusing National Intelligence about carrying supplies to ISIS10 were deepened Turkey’s challenging situation over Northern Syria. Besides this politically tight shape, after thirteen years of majority in the parliament, the parliamentary election results marked a psychological turning point for the single party government. AKP lost its majority in the parliament and was required to looking into forming a coalition government. AKP élites thought that they lost their ideological endorsement coming from legitimate voting.
Consideration of “politico-military” choice which was designed to suppress opposite voices has begun to be discussed among AKP officials. To regain political support from grassroots by politico-military actions, national security dialogues and concerns about regional organizations as People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Northern Syria and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) were intensified by provisional government right after the election results were released. There are many potential reasons behind this attitude change over the Northern Syrian case. First, as it was argued, while soft power fails in foreign policy, realism appears to be a “stabilizer”11 (Burchill, 2001:70). In this direction, inadequate politics over Northern Syria triggered AKP’s national popularity to decline. In addition to this political decision, AKP decided to securitize the national agenda in order to stabilize its decreasing per cent of votes which were dispossessed by Kurdish dominated People’s Democratic Party (HDP). Similarly, AKP’s changing policy reflects their martial agenda discourse since securitization of issues can thus be seen as a more extreme version of politicization12 (Buzan, 1998:23).
On the other hand, last election results have warned AKP dominated Turkish decision-makers about the opportunity that, in theory, foreign interventions may bring consolidation of political power and may help to stabilize it which was lost in last elections. By securitization of politics justifies extraordinary actions such as cross border military operations and state of emergency law can be legalized by a government in political distress in order to occupy agendum and postpone nationwide expectations of following the elections. Secondly, national security unifies the nation against a common enemy13 (Huntington, 1997: 350-375). This step also appears as a modern statecraft of national politics to regain fallen political popularity once again. Within this framework it can be deducted that the idea of a potential intervention in Syria is much more linked to what national security “means” rather than what national security “does”. According to interpretations of the Copenhagen School which works on how security dialogues function in international system, having a security agenda could provide opportunities for political groups to overflow regular national politics and create special justifications for political actions14 (Guzzini and Jund, 2004: 1-13).
In light of these assertions it can be argued that if the Turkish government would militarily intervened in Northern Syria before the June 2015 elections, the political costs of intervention for the ruling AKP would have been extremely high. Post-elections, however, a possible intervention has become a viable solution for the AKP to recover political popularity and making the party look like a “national hero”. Equally significant, the developed anti ISIS coalition under the leadership of the US has provided Turkish policy makers with an opportunity to boost its relations with the West. Although the Western powers have been critical to Turkey’s Syrian policy, by getting support from the new strategic alliance, Turkey has started to act more flexible over non-ISIS targets like YPG positions situated in Northern Syria and Iraq until Incirlik Airbase in Malatya has started to be used by US jets. It could be claimed that military actions and tough regulations in Southeastern Turkey could shake Turkey’s “soft power leadership” and remit the political achievements of Turkey in the region where the cultural popularity and political legitimacy of actions were established to strengthen the country’s regional power.
However, circumstances have changed in accordance with the decline in soft power variables and Turkish internal political dynamics. Ongoing activities highlighted that the intervention agenda on the Northern Syria issue will continue to remain on both the internal and external agendas of Turkey as an inefficient and questionable martial involvement which appears as of AKP’s main asset even there is no definite enemy of Turkey in the region because of ever-changing domination struggles among groups. Presently, unstable internal political dynamics, security agenda headlines and de facto neighbor fears are transforming Turkey’s neo-liberal soft power image to hardliner state portrait. It may be deduced from these progresses that AKP’s “Zero Problem” paradigm progressively has evolved into a “Zero Tolerance” mentality over the Syrian conflict.
The Muslim world’s changing dynamics: Pakistan struggles to retain its footing
Increasing strains between Pakistan and its traditional Arab allies, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, is about more than Gulf states opportunistically targeting India’s far more lucrative market.
At the heart of the tensions, that potentially complicate Pakistan’s economic recovery, is also India’s ability to enhance Gulf states’ capacity to hedge their bets amid uncertainty about the continued US commitment to regional security.
India is a key member of the Quad that also includes the United States, Australia and Japan and could play a role in a future more multilateral regional security architecture in the Gulf.
Designed as the backbone of an Indo-Pacific strategy intended to counter China across a swath of maritime Asia, Gulf states are unlikely to pick sides but remain keen on ensuring that they maintain close ties with both sides of the widening divide.
The mounting strains with Pakistan are also the latest iteration of a global battle for Muslim religious soft power that pits Saudi Arabia and the UAE against Turkey, Iran, and Asian players like Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Islamic movement.
A combination of geo- and domestic politics is complicating efforts by major Muslim-majority states in Asia to walk a middle line. Pakistan, home to the world’s largest Shiite Muslim minority, has reached out to Turkey while seeking to balance relations with its neighbour, Iran.
The pressure on Pakistan is multi-fold.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan charged recently that the United States and one other unidentified country were pressing him to establish diplomatic relations with Israel.
Pakistani and Israeli media named Saudi Arabia as the unidentified country. Representing the world’s second most populous Muslim nation, Pakistani recognition, following in the footsteps of the UAE and Bahrain, would be significant.
Pakistan twice in the last year signalled a widening rift with the kingdom.
Mr. Khan had planned to participate a year ago in an Islamic summit hosted by Malaysia and attended by Saudi Arabia’s detractors, Turkey, Iran and Qatar, but not the kingdom and a majority of Muslim states. The Pakistani prime minister cancelled his participation at the last moment under Saudi pressure.
More recently, Pakistan again challenged Saudi leadership of the Muslim world when Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi complained about lack of support of the Saudi-dominated Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) for Pakistan in its conflict with India over Kashmir. The OIC groups the world’s 57 Muslim-majority nations. Mr. Qureshi suggested that his country would seek to rally support beyond the realm of the kingdom.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on a visit to Pakistan earlier this year, made a point of repeatedly reiterating his country’s support for Pakistan in the Kashmir dispute.
By openly challenging the kingdom, Mr. Qureshi was hitting Saudi Arabia where it hurts most as it seeks to repair its image tarnished by allegations of abuse of human rights, manoeuvres to get off on the right foot with incoming US President-elect Joe Biden’s administration, and fends off challenges to its leadership of the Muslim world.
Pakistan has not helped itself by recently failing to ensure that it would be removed from the grey list of the Financial Action Task Force, an international anti-money laundering and terrorism finance watchdog, despite progress in the country’s legal infrastructure and enforcement.
Grey listing causes reputational damage and makes foreign investors and international banks more cautious in their dealings with countries that have not been granted a clean bill of health.
Responding to Mr. Qureshi’s challenge, Saudi Arabia demanded that Pakistan repay a US$1 billion loan extended to help the South Asian nation ease its financial crisis. The kingdom has also dragged its feet on renewing a US$3.2 billion oil credit facility that expired in May.
In what Pakistan will interpret as UAE support for Saudi Arabia, the Emirates last week included Pakistan on its version of US President Donald J. Trump’s Muslim travel ban.
Inclusion on the list of 13 Muslim countries whose nationals will no longer be issued visas for travel to the UAE increases pressure on Pakistan, which relies heavily on exporting labour to generate remittances and alleviate unemployment.
Some Pakistanis fear that a potential improvement in Saudi-Turkish relations could see their country fall through geopolitical cracks.
In the first face-to-face meeting between senior Saudi and Turkish officials since the October 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul, the two countries’ foreign ministers, Prince Faisal bin Farhan and Mevlut Cavusoglu, held bilateral talks this weekend, on the sidelines of an OIC conference in the African state of Niger.
“A strong Turkey-Saudi partnership benefits not only our countries but the whole region,” Mr. Cavusoglu tweeted after the meeting.
The meeting came days after Saudi King Salman telephoned Mr. Erdogan on the eve of a virtual summit hosted by the kingdom of the Group of 20 (G20) that brings together the world’s largest economies.
“The Muslim world is changing and alliances are shifting and entering new, unchartered territories,” said analyst Sahar Khan.
Added Imtiaz Ali, another analyst: “In the short term, Riyadh will continue exploiting Islamabad’s economic vulnerabilities… But in the longer term, Riyadh cannot ignore the rise of India in the region, and the two countries may become close allies – something that will mostly likely increase the strain on Pakistan-Saudi relations.”
Assassination of top Iranian Nuclear Scientist: A big Tragedy
On the sad incident of the assassination of a top Iranian nuclear scientist, the UN spokesman said, “We urge restraint and the need to avoid any actions that could lead to an escalation of tensions in the region.” Turkey termed the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh as an ‘act of terrorism’ while the EU calls it ‘criminal’ and urges ‘maximum restraint.’ Anger can be seen in Iran and the region. The whole region is worried and mourning.
Masses are demanding to investigate the assassination act thoroughly and punish the responsibles. It is a straight forward criminal act and a direct threat to Iran’s sovereignty. The whole world is upset and can not forgive.
It was well-known that the US assassinated General Qasim Sulymani in Baghdad just a few ago. The retaliation from Iran was just appropriate, and the US could not digest it yet. Top nuclear Scientist’s assassination is not accepted under any circumstances, and any retaliation will be justice.
Iran has the capability and will to retaliate. Although we all – peace-loving people request Iran to cool down and observe restrains, at the same time, we understand, if the aggressors are not checked, it will happen again and again, and maybe in more intensity and frequency. If the retaliation is severe, then the aggressor may not dare to attempt again in the future. A minimum level of deterrence is required to maintain. Otherwise, further assassinations are encouraged.
The ruthless assassination of Dr. Fakhrizadeh on Friday 27 November is not just ‘another’ routine incident—it’s causality is more significant than it’s aftermath. The Western world engaged Iran under JCPOA in October 2015. Things were smooth, and Iran was in full compliance with the deal. Internation Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was regularly monitoring Iran’s nuclear facilities and confirmed the fullcompliance. All the signatories of JCPOA were also satisfied, except President Trump. Even his administration has not noticed any deviation from Iran, but after having a close presentation from the Israeli prime minister Netanyahu, President scrapped the JCPOA in 2018. The unilateral withdrawal of President Trump from the nuclear deal was widely criticized but was celebrated by Israel. Since then, Iran was under immense pressure from the US as well as Israel.
Highly classified speculations are that the final decision to eliminate Fakhrizadeh was perhaps taken last Sunday 22 November, in a semi-secretive meeting in the Saudi coastal resort of Neom—attended by Mike Pompeo, Benjamin Netanyahu, Yossi Cohen, and Prince MBS.
There are other views that Fakhrizadeh’s assassination is another big conspiracy to destabilize global peace and stability, which might hinder the transition of power to newly elect-president Joe Biden. As a result, President Trump remains in control. Strong possibilities are that the outgoing President Trump will make the most of the power transfer transition period—taking big decisions to please his external partners/friends (Isreal and anti-Iran Arab states). Some say this killing will reduce Iran’s negotiating powers—should Joe Biden/Tony Blinken revive the JCPOA. Some global security pundits comment, this assassination was aimed at infuriating Iran, instigating it to react with military force against Israel, prompting the US and its regional allies (Israel, KSA, UAE, and Bahrain) to declare an all-out direct war on Iran.
It is relatively early to say something precisely, that what happen? How happened? And What will happen next? All are view points, and no authentic opinion is concluded. But one thing is very much clear, the region is a cooked volcano and may burst any moment.
It may destabilize the whole region; the oil-rich region may halt oil supply to the Western world. The Oil prices may shoot up; Industrial growth may be harmed, inflation may hike up, the global economy may suffer adversely.
It is also possible that the Arab and non-Arab Muslim world be divided visibly and further harm the Muslim world. Irrespective of any country or nation, or religion, humankind will suffer at the end of the day. Irrespective of race, religion, ethnicity, we must urge the safety of human lives.
The world community must proactively play a positive role in saving humankind and the loss of precious lives. Bloodshed is not permissible in any religion, society, or law, especially because we claim to be a civilized world and should act as civilized.
Libya: Lights and shadows of the peace process
After six days of intense closed-door talks between the 75 delegates of the various Libyan factions summoned to Tunis by the Acting Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General (SRSG), Stephanie Williams, the first round of negotiations that ended on November 15 confirmed the “ceasefire”, but failed to reach an agreement on the mechanisms and criteria for selecting the candidates for a new “national unity” government.
Acting SRSG Stephanie Williams has decided to reconvene in the coming days – via video conference – a second round of what has been called the “Libyan Political Dialogue Forum” (LPDF), with the ambition of succeeding in forming a government able to manage the national elections scheduled for December 24, 2021.
While admitting the partial failure of the Tunis talks, the U.S. diplomat declared frankly that it was not “realistically possible to find solutions to a ten-year conflict in a simple round of negotiations”. Nevertheless, Acting SRSG Stephanie Williams has stressed that “there seems to be the possibility of an agreement on three important sensitive aspects of the negotiation, i.e. the tasks and duties of the new government; the criteria for appointing those who will take up the government posts and the roadmap for the peace process.
She added that “Libyan politicians now have the opportunity to effectively occupy centre stage or end up going extinct as dinosaurs”.
Tough words that convey the disappointment for a negotiation that sees the parties involved (the Tripoli government led by Fayez al-Sarraj; the Tobruk faction commanded by General Khalifa Haftar and the Fezzan independent tribes) willing to respect the armed truce, but little inclined to make political concessions to their counterparts.
Certainly it was not easy to make the Libyan stakeholders – who, until last summer, had been fighting one another in open field -converge on a political dialogue path
It was not easy also due to the behind-the-scenes activism of the international sponsors of the opposing factions: Turkey and Qatar in favour of al-Sarraj; Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Egypt and Russia supporting the “Libyan National Army” led by General Haftar, while President Macron’s France is openly siding with the Fezzan tribes.
During the Tunis talks, all delegates systematically leaked to the press fake drafts of possible agreements, in view of thwarting the proposals of their counterparts.
According to “Agenzia Nova”, apparently official documents were circulated containing references to the topics actually under discussion, “polluted” by totally invented parts: “real poisoned drafts received from Libyan sources close to General Haftar”.
Malicious rumours have also spread about the possible corruption of some delegates, bribed with many dollars to favour the appointment of Abdullh al-Dabaiba -the powerful “warlord” of Misrata and founder of the “Future for Libya” movement – to the new government. It should be recalled that, thanks to Turkish weapons and Islamist mercenaries brought by President Erdogan to Libya from Syria, Misrata’s militias rescued al-Sarraj’s government from collapse when last April General Haftar’s militias had arrived at Tripoli’s gates.
However, despite the difficulties, in her report to the UN Security Council, Acting SRSG Stephanie Williams also highlighted some positive aspects of the situation on the ground.
First of all, the military truce is holding out: there are no significant violations of the “ceasefire”, while “the exchange of prisoners continues, facilitated by the Council of Elders, with the support of the Joint Military Commission.
Another important result has been achieved in the oil sector: with the agreement of all the parties involved, the National Oil Company has resumed oil production in full swing, which has quickly returned to last year’s level of 1.2 million. However, the transparent distribution of oil revenues must be postponed until an agreement is reached between all the parties involved, pending which the National Oil Company shall set aside the proceeds from oil sale in a special UN-controlled account.
This is a sensitive aspect regarding directly Italy: the resumption of crude oil extraction means much for ENI which – albeit left alone by national institutions to operate in the dangerous situation of tension between the opposing Libyan factions – has managed to establish itself as a credible and reliable counterpart and to maintain its extraction, production and refining activities in Libya.
While concluding her briefing to the UN Security Council, Acting SRSG Stephanie Williams underlined: “Seventy-five Libyans came together in Tunis …in a good faith effort to start the process of healing their nation’s wounds. …they extended their hands, if not their hearts, to each other”.
“Not their hearts”: this is the deepest shadow hanging over the Tunis talks, casting uncertainty over a peace process in which the role of the national players is often influenced and manipulated by the various international sponsors – and the sponsors certainly do not act for “heart” reasons.
On the Tripoli government’s front, the two key allies are President Erdogan’s Turkey and Qatar ruled by young Emir Tamin bin Hamad Al Thani.
Despite the accession of the former to NATO and of the latter to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the two countries have embraced the cause of Muslim extremism by more or less openly supporting jihadist militias during the civil conflicts in Syria, Iraq and, most recently, Libya.
At the side of these awkward travel companions, in a quiet and secluded corner, we can find Italy which, in 2016, with an undoubtedly politically correct move, followed the United Nations, which imposed a neo-colonialist governmental solution on Libya, by establishing al-Sarraj’s “Government of National Accord” (GNA), at first in Tunis and later in Tripoli. A “neo-colonialist” solution because the GNA has not been recognised by any of Tripoli’s and Tobruk’s Parliaments and has never been legitimized by elections or supported by the people.
Over the last four years, while al-Sarraj barely controlled the capital, the Italian diplomacy has not seemed able to find a clear policy and line of action, in a region of vital importance for the country, other than that of “respect for UN resolutions”, a formal pretext used also by the European Union to justify its inaction.
As said above, faced with Turkey’s and Qatar’s political and military commitment to support al-Sarraj, but above all the Islamist militias of Tripoli and Misrata, the Gulf States have broken diplomatic relations with Qatar, accusing its Emir of an adventurous conduct in favour of the “Muslim Brotherhood” throughout the region.
Furthermore, together with Egypt, France and Russia, the Gulf States have actually established an alliance to protect two of the three Libyan political-military components, i.e. General Haftar’s”Libya Liberation Army” and the militias linked to the Fezzan tribes with whom France has established an almost exclusive partnership.
While the diplomacies interested in the Middle East are playing on several tables – just think of the new relations between the Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and above all Saudi Arabia, with Israel-Italy and Europe – probably also because of the pandemic – seem to be immobilized and bogged down into passive positions of principle on the positive aspects of “multilateralism”.
Indeed. the other countries are taking action also in view of possible political and economic dividends in the future, while Italy and Europe, with their wait-and-see attitude, remain on the sidelines to watch – as mere spectators – the development of events that will have a decisive impact on the new Mediterranean equilibria of the near future.
Nevertheless, there seem to be no good news about U.S. international commitments in the “after-Trump era”.
The new President, Joe Biden, has appointed Antony Blinken as the new Secretary of State.
Despite his being an educated, cosmopolitan and polite person, we cannot forget that, during Obama’s Presidencies, Blinken was a close aide of Hillary Clinton, at first, and of John Kerry, later, i.e. two negative protagonists of international relations and foreign policy who, with their naïve support for the fake “Arab Springs”, contributed to upset North Africa and the Middle East in the name of a mirage that saw an unattainable goal of Western democracy for the countries experiencing Islamist civil uprisings and unrest.
After having fomented and militarily supported the revolt against Colonel Gaddafi, the U.S. Department of State led by Hillary Clinton, had to face the sacrifice of its ambassador in Libya, Chris Stevens, who was killed on September 11, 2012 in Benghazi, where he had been sent for a confused and botched negotiation with the Islamists of Ansar Al Sharia.
Under Kerry’s leadership, with Blinken at his side as Deputy Secretary of State, the United States managed the Syrian crisis in a politically and militarily unwise manner, thus finally leaving the field open to Russia and Turkey.
Against this backcloth, the prospects for a return to action of U.S. diplomacy (partly put to rest by Donald Trump) are not particularly fascinating, in an area such as Libya where Italy, in its own small way, is not even able to sketch out a credible negotiation for the release of the eighteen fishermen from Mazara del Vallo, kidnapped by General Haftar’s forces for over two months.
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