So far the United States and their coalition have conducted 12,199 aerial bombing operations in Syria and Iraq – exactly 8,322 in Iraq and 3,877 in Syria. Hence Inherent Resolve, the operation of said US-led coalition in Iraq and Syria, has not at all been irrelevant at militarily level. If anything, it lacked a “war aim”, just to quote Von Clausewitz.
For the time being, the Inherent Resolve operation has destroyed 139 tanks; 374 Humvee, the specific armed self-propelled units produced by the United States and spread among all the warring factions; 1,162 Command and Control areas, especially ISIS ones and, more recently, areas of the Al Nusra Front, the Al Qaeda “branch” in Syria and in the Iraqi Shiite “Green Zone” around Baghdad; 5,894 buildings and 7,118 ISIS combat areas; 1,272 oil infrastructure units, including both wells and connecting lines, as well as 6,820 other unspecified “targets”.
But the central issue of the Syrian war is still centred on Aleppo: on May 7, 2016 Turkey sent its Special Forces to the Northern Syrian town, which is the real “centre of gravity” of this great and original proxy war, with a view to identifying the position of the ISIS missile launchers.
Moreover, Turkey also wanted to detect and follow the Kurdish movement lines in the areas east of Aleppo, so as to ban any YGP collaboration with the forces of the US-led Coalition and of the coalition coordinated by the Russian Federation.
As always happens, immediately after the “cease-fire”, clashes started around the town in order to reposition the forces, soon after the diplomatic-political balances portraying the existing situation.
During the “ceasefire”, the side forces of Assad’ Syrian Arab Army, with support from Iran and the Hezbollah, tried to conquer the Handarat district, north of Aleppo, precisely while both the United States and Russia were about to close the negotiations.
Negotiations which they both need to definitively clarify the balance of power in their respective coalitions, as well as to refine the selection of future goals and to better observe the opponents’ strategy and tactics.
Handarat is the last ring of Bashar’s encirclement of Aleppo and we must not forget that very recently the Alawi regime has gained the support of a new pro-Assad force created among the Palestinians, namely “the Leopards of Homs”.
Even before, the Palestinian movement had shown its new pro-Alawi (and pro-Iranian) configuration with the creation of the “volunteer” militias for Bashar, called “the Khaybar Brigade” and Quwat al-Ridha, namely “the al-Ridha Forces”, integrated into the Hezbollah units in Syria.
Where there is no more Saudi support, no longer interested in Israel’s encirclement, there is the new Iranian geopolitics, interested in managing a dual war, the one against the ”Zionist Entity” and the other against what we might call the Sunni International.
And it is precisely on May 7, 2016 that Iran announced it had lost – in an ambush by the “Al Nusra Front” and the “Brown Berets” of the Turkish Special Forces – over 30 “military advisers” killed by a battery of MILAN anti-tank missiles bought and distributed by the Turkish intelligence services to the Al Qaeda section in Syria..
Hence Assad’s army difficulty in regaining full control of Aleppo, which is also the contact point between Syria and Turkey, as well as the hub of ISIS’ illegal trade, the point of friction between the Kurds and the other warring factions and hence the real goal of the current Syrian proxy war in the North.
This adds to the rebellion in the Hama prisons, another failure for the Syrian Arab Army.
Too many open fronts are the sign of imminent defeat.
In essence, Russia is realizing it can no longer sustain – on its own – the operations in the region without a collaborative relationship with the Unite States, while it has no interest in exploiting Bashar el Assad and especially the Iranians, who may have greater ambitions for the new Alawi Syria and even endanger the autonomy of the Russian bases in Latakia and Tartus, by surrounding them with Pasdaran cells to support Assad’s future regime – if ever any for the whole Syria.
Nor Moscow wants to increase costs and engagements in the Syrian region, already too expensive and anyway oversized compared to Russia’s real interests on the field.
Furthermore, the assassination of the Supreme Commander of the Lebanese “Party of God” in Syria, which took place on May 13, 2016 at Damascus International Airport, where the Hezbollah had their Supreme Command, is further evidence of the jihadist Sunni forces’ resilience in Syria, as well as of the structural weakness of Iran’s engagement in the region and the difficulties still incurred by Bashar el Assad in fully controlling his territory.
Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Hezbollah in the Lebanon, is sure that this operation is the seal of a new unity of action between the United States and Russia in Syria, while the Lebanese victim was reprogramming the dislocation of the “Party of God” along the border between Syria and the Lebanon, which certainly neither Assad nor Russia likes.
Until few days ago, the latest Russian aircraft sorties hit east of Idlib, directly in the Aleppo area, then south of Hama, the area still held by the so-called “rebels” and finally Deir el Zour, in the West of the country.
Upon US request, however, both the United States and Russia immediately included Aleppo in the region of the current truce, which means that also Assad’s army has decided it would certainly opt for a “regime of calm” around that city.
Nevertheless Russia emphasizes that the Syrian Arab Army is still waging and fighting “a wide jihadist offensive in Aleppo”, implicitly backed by Turkey which, obviously, does not want a change of the US strategy and, above all, does not want to miss the strategic axis of the town where the soap was invented – a city which is the real gateway to Syria and its hub vis-à-vis the large Sunni jihad system.
Strangely Turkey – which is the second NATO armed force in terms of size – has not been reprimanded by the Alliance for its behaviour in Syria, but probably the Atlantic forces must face two long-term geopolitical problems: the increasingly evident US disengagement from the Greater Middle East, as well as the impossibility for the Alliance’s “EU pillar” to militarily take charge of the Syrian issue on its own.
Therefore we confine ourselves to a business as usual strategy and to paying lip service to humanitarian goals.
Currently the French and German Ministers for Foreign Affairs want an impossible long truce in Aleppo, so as to renew the Geneva and Vienna “peace talks” of the International Syrian Support Group, a diplomatic organization which met for the last time on May 17 (the day when the US offensive began) with the Arab League, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the United Nations, always supporting the cessation of hostilities.
The operational, and still tacit, agreement between the United States and Russia might not go along the lines of the national cessation of hostilities – as precisely called for in Vienna as from May 17, but along the lines of a new distribution of costs and future areas of influence in Syria.
The “tacit agreement” in the region of a huge proxy war between Russia and the United States is supported even by Bashar el Assad, although we do not know until when.
So far it is supposed to be based on the fact that the United States are convinced that the Russian Federation has “a deep and unique knowledge of the ground”, which they still lack, while Russia still states it wants to military support the Alawi “legitimate government”.
Against this background, however, the real card to play is the Israeli one.
Last Monday, President Putin met secretly with the Head of the Israeli government, Netanyahu, both for an “exchange of information ad views” on the Syrian issue and for Israel’ support to the effective and definitive contact between the United States and Russia.
Hence the US allegations of a Russian “military intervention” in the region are soon dispelled, but covert and secret operations increase, also with the Jewish State’s brokerage, so as to unite the forces of the two major States involved in the Syrian region.
As we saw earlier, we cannot even maintain that the large US-led coalition has stood idle faced with the war operations in favour of the “moderate rebels”, at first – an odd invention of the US propaganda – and later, more decisively, against the Al Nusra Front and the huge jihadist Sunni system – which could be seen as a sort of acknowledgment of previous faults and mistakes.
Probably the United States do not even trust too much the autonomous and significant Saudi presence in Syria, and do not even want to provide – through the deterioration of the situation in the Syrian region – the opportunity for a full scale confrontation between Iran and the Sunnis led by Saudi Arabia.
President Obama has well tried and tested the irrationality of the current Wahhabi ruling class.
And this is President Putin’s real victory.
The Head of the Kremlin who, even in the case of the Russian military aircraft shot down by Turkey, showed a strategic balanced and rational attitude which, however, will not be for free for Turkey when the dust settles and the situation gets back to normal.
Most importantly, President Putin has clearly calculated that the Russian direct and ongoing engagement would immediately call for equivalent American support, thus leading to Russia’s real goal of the war in Syria: to force the United States to hold talks on an equal footing, which Russia may also focus on the Ukrainian issue and the NATO and US actions along the new borders of the old Cold War in Europe.
President Putin’s strength and decision blocked the first US operations in Syria, designed to tacitly stop the expansion of Russia’s engagement.
During that phase the US goal was that the Russian troops could increase the Russian Federation’s weight at the final negotiating table.
Moreover, the United States have realized that it is not possible to contain Russia’s expansion in Western Syria and to fight ISIS at the same time, by possibly using the jihadist groups calling themselves “moderates”, sometimes trained – at the beginning of hostilities – by CIA before their moving to Al Baghdadi’s Caliphate.
The less naïve or incapable Europeans, however, have always denied there was a realistic plan to reduce the Russian clout in the Syrian region and have also stated that the cost of sanctions (and Russian counter-sanctions) is really too high, even compared to a final reasonable bilateral agreement between the United States and Russia.
The EU economy must not be killed to shape a bilateral deal which, however, could not occur.
Hence, precisely after the elimination of the Hezbollah leader in Syria, the United States decided to increase their military engagement in the country and, for the first time, again on May 17, the US F-16 aircraft bombed the jihadist forces around Aleppo, without hitting directly – as far as we know – the Iranian positions and the positions of the Lebanese “Party of God”, as well as the positions of the Afghan Shiites “volunteers” and the other 13 groups supporting the Pasdaran in Iran.
According to the data provided by our intelligence sources, the targets of the US air strikes were troops, bases and transport infrastructure used by ISIS and the Al Nusra Front, which, sensing the change in the US strategy, had already begun to fight even against the “moderate” jihad.
It is US sound support also for Bashar el Assad, but now we have got accustomed to these US sudden changes of strategy in the Middle East and in the rest of the world.
In this case, the primary issue for President Obama is obviously to quickly settle the Syrian issue, by recognizing Russia’s right to be present in Tartus and Latakia and in the whole local system, at least to prevent the Iranian expansion and to stabilize the presence – which could become dangerous – of Saudi Arabia, south and east of the State that the French colonizers wanted to be led by the Alawi minority, becoming officially Shiite only after the decision of the Lebanese Imam, Mussa Sadr, who disappeared in Libya in 1978.
The US F-16 aircraft took off from the Turkish base of Incirlik, which could lead us to think that also Turkey is not interested in an endless extreme radicalization of the Syrian “proxy war”.
Probably the United States have ensured to President Erdogan his droit de regard, namely some scrutiny on the Sunni majority in Syria, in discordant harmony with Saudi Arabia.
The F-16 aircraft hit Aleppo and Idlib, another difficult position for the axis between Assad and Russia.
The Turkish scrutiny will be curbed and restrained by the Russian presence on the territory, so as to avoid Turkish adventures in Central Asia which would do much harm also to the United States, thus calling them again into the region for a confrontation which could not but finally affect also China.
The US air strikes, however, have always been coordinated with the Russian command of the Humaynim base and “mediated” by the information available to the Russian and American officers in Jordan.
Hence, today, the contenders in the Syrian skies are ten: USA, Russia, Israel, Great Britain, France, Belgium, Germany, Syria, Turkey and Jordan.
Moreover, the US CENTCOM, namely the structure which commands and controls all American forces in the Middle East, has repositioned some of the Special Forces units at the Remalan base, in northern Syria, near the Kurdish town of Hassakeh.
Therefore some support of the US Special Forces is expected for the final taking of Aleppo, which is and will be the real turning point of the war in Syria.
But what will happen afterwards?
President Putin will sit at the negotiating table in Vienna or Geneva with the winner’s hard, but relaxed, look.
He will be in a position to keep his vital Mediterranean region, an ever more inevitable strategic counterweight as against the Western penetration in Ukraine, as well as an essential bargaining chip for negotiations both in the Middle East and in the Don region.
Conversely President Obama will be ensured an important role and place for the United States in Syria – at a time when the US-led Coalition forces become strategically irrelevant, despite the large number of operations carried out successfully – and will be in a position to have a right of direct strategic brokerage even with Bashar al-Assad, as in the good old days of his father Hafez.
Turkey will be in a position to have a controlled system of influence on the Sunni areas, with the guarantee – carefully monitored – it will break any relations with the local jihad.
Furthermore Saudi Arabia will not directly clash with Iran, at a time of economic difficulties for the Kingdom and of slow internal destabilization.
Iran will avoid radicalising the clash in its Shiite system that it has also shown to be unable to fully control, at least in an exclusively military way.
Moreover Israel will prove to be able to play its new role as great power broker in the Greater Middle East, as well as genuine regional and international power, by balancing itself with Russia and maintaining its old relations with the United States, thus playing a future role as “maverick” that currently nobody can fully predict.
The Turkish Gambit
The only certainty in war is its intrinsic uncertainty, something Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could soon chance upon. One only has to look back on America’s topsy-turvy fortunes in Iraq, Afghanistan and even Syria for confirmation.
The Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria has as its defined objective a buffer zone between the Kurds in Turkey and in Syria. Mr. Erdogan hopes, to populate it with some of the 3 million plus Syrian refugees in Turkey, many of these in limbo in border camps. The refugees are Arab; the Kurds are not.
Kurds speak a language different from Arabic but akin to Persian. After the First World War, when the victors parceled up the Arab areas of the Ottoman Empire, Syria came to be controlled by the French, Iraq by the British, and the Kurdish area was divided into parts in Turkey, Syria and Iraq, not forgetting the borderlands in Iran — a brutal division by a colonial scalpel severing communities, friends and families. About the latter, I have some experience, having lived through the bloody partition of India into two, and now three countries that cost a million lives.
How Mr. Erdogan will persuade the Arab Syrian refugees to live in an enclave, surrounded by hostile Kurds, some ethnically cleansed from the very same place, remains an open question. Will the Turkish army occupy this zone permanently? For, we can imagine what the Kurds will do if the Turkish forces leave.
There is another aspect of modern conflict that has made conquest no longer such a desirable proposition — the guerrilla fighter. Lightly armed and a master of asymmetric warfare, he destabilizes.
Modern weapons provide small bands of men the capacity and capability to down helicopters, cripple tanks, lay IEDs, place car bombs in cities and generally disrupt any orderly functioning of a state, tying down large forces at huge expense with little chance of long term stability. If the US has failed repeatedly in its efforts to bend countries to its will, one has to wonder if Erdogan has thought this one through.
The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 is another case in point. Forever synonymous with the infamous butchery at Sabra and Shatila by the Phalange militia facilitated by Israeli forces, it is easy to forget a major and important Israeli goal: access to the waters of the Litani River which implied a zone of occupation for the area south of it up to the Israeli border.
Southern Lebanon is predominantly Shia and at the time of the Israeli invasion they were a placid group who were dominated by Christians and Sunni, even Palestinians ejected from Israel but now armed and finding refuge in Lebanon. It was when the Israelis looked like they were going to stay that the Shia awoke. It took a while but soon their guerrillas were harassing Israeli troops and drawing blood. The game was no longer worth the candle and Israel, licking its wounds, began to withdraw ending up eventually behind their own border.
A colossal footnote is the resurgent Shia confidence, the buildup into Hezbollah and new political power. The Hezbollah prepared well for another Israeli invasion to settle old scores and teach them a lesson. So they were ready, and shocked the Israelis in 2006. Now they are feared by Israeli troops.
To return to the present, it is not entirely clear as to what transpired in the telephone call between Erdogan and Trump. Various sources confirm Trump has bluffed Erdogan in the past. It is not unlikely then for Trump to have said this time, “We’re leaving. If you go in, you will have to police the area. Don’t ask us to help you.” Is that subject to misinterpretation? It certainly is a reminder of the inadvertent green light to Saddam Hussein for the invasion of Kuwait when Bush Senior was in office.
For the time being Erdogan is holding fast and Trump has signed an executive order imposing sanctions on Turkish officials and institutions. Three Turkish ministers and the Defense and Energy ministries are included. Trump has also demanded an immediate ceasefire. On the economic front, he has raised tariffs on steel back to 50 percent as it used to be before last May. Trade negotiations on a $100 billion trade deal with Turkey have also been halted forthwith. The order also includes the holding of property of those sanctioned, as well as barring entry to the U.S.
Meanwhile, the misery begins all over again as thousands flee the invasion area carrying what they can. Where are they headed? Anywhere where artillery shells do not rain down and the sound of airplanes does not mean bombs.
Such are the exigencies of war and often its surprising consequences.
Author’s Note: This piece appeared originally on Counterpunch.org
Could Turkish aggression boost peace in Syria?
On October 7, 2019, the U.S. President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of American troops from northeast Syria, where the contingent alongside Kurdish militias controlled the vast territories. Trump clarified that the decision is connected with the intention of Turkey to attack the Kurdish units, posing a threat to Ankara.
It’s incredible that the Turkish military operation against Kurds – indeed the territorial integrity of Syria has resulted in the escape of the U.S., Great Britain, and France. These states essentially are key destabilizing components of the Syrian crisis.
Could this factor favourably influence the situation in the country? For instance, after the end of the Iraqi war in 2011 when the bulk of the American troops left the country, the positive developments took place in the lives of all Iraqis. According to World Economics organization, after the end of the conflict, Iraq’s GDP grew by 14% in 2012, while during the U.S. hostilities the average GDP growth was about 5,8%.
Syria’s GDP growth should also be predicted. Not right away the withdrawal of U.S., French, British, and other forces, but a little bit later after the end of the Turkish operation that is not a phenomenon. The Turkish-Kurdish conflict has been going on since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire when Kurds started to promote the ideas of self-identity and independence. Apart from numerous human losses, the Turks accomplished nothing. It is unlikely that Ankara would achieve much in Peace Spring operation. The Kurds realize the gravity of the situation and choose to form an alliance with the Syrian government that has undermined the ongoing Turkish offensive.
Under these circumstances, Erdogan could only hope for the creation of a narrow buffer zone on the Syrian-Turkish border. The withdrawal of the Turkish forces from the region is just a matter of time. However, we can safely say that the Turkish expansion unwittingly accelerated the peace settlement of the Syrian crisis, as the vital destabilizing forces left the country. Besides, the transfer of the oil-rich north-eastern regions under the control of Bashar Assad will also contribute to the early resolution of the conflict.
It remains a matter of conjecture what the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia agreed on during the high-level talks. Let’s hope that not only the Syrians, but also key Gulf states are tired of instability and tension in the region, and it’s a high time to strive for a political solution to the Syrian problem.
Turkey and the Kurds: What goes around comes around
Turkey, like much of the Middle East, is discovering that what goes around comes around.
Not only because President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to have miscalculated the fallout of what may prove to be a foolhardy intervention in Syria and neglected alternative options that could have strengthened Turkey’s position without sparking the ire of much of the international community.
But also because what could prove to be a strategic error is rooted in a policy of decades of denial of Kurdish identity and suppression of Kurdish cultural and political rights that was more likely than not to fuel conflict rather than encourage societal cohesion.
The policy midwifed the birth in the 1970s to militant groups like the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which only dropped its demand for Kurdish independence in recent years.
The group that has waged a low intensity insurgency that has cost tens of thousands of lives has been declared a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.
Turkish refusal to acknowledge the rights of the Kurds, who are believed to account for up to 20 percent of the country’s population traces its roots to the carving of modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire by its visionary founder, Mustafa Kemal, widely known as Ataturk, Father of the Turks.
It is entrenched in Mr. Kemal’s declaration in a speech in 1923 to celebrate Turkish independence of “how happy is the one who calls himself a Turk,” an effort to forge a national identity for country that was an ethnic mosaic.
The phrase was incorporated half a century later in Turkey’s student oath and ultimately removed from it in 2013 at a time of peace talks between Turkey and the PKK by then prime minister, now president Erdogan.
It took the influx of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980s and early 1990s as well as the 1991 declaration by the United States, Britain and France of a no-fly zone in northern Iraq that enabled the emergence of an autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region to spark debate in Turkey about the Kurdish question and prompt the government to refer to Kurds as Kurds rather than mountain Turks.
Ironically, Turkey’s enduring refusal to acknowledge Kurdish rights and its long neglect of development of the pre-dominantly Kurdish southeast of the country fuelled demands for greater rights rather than majority support for Kurdish secession largely despite the emergence of the PKK
Most Turkish Kurds, who could rise to the highest offices in the land s long as they identified as Turks rather than Kurds, resembled Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, whose options were more limited even if they endorsed the notion of a Jewish state.
Nonetheless, both minorities favoured an independent state for their brethren on the other side of the border but did not want to surrender the opportunities that either Turkey or Israel offered them.
The existence for close to three decades of a Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq and a 2017 referendum in which an overwhelming majority voted for Iraqi Kurdish independence, bitterly rejected and ultimately nullified by Iraqi, Turkish and Iranian opposition, did little to fundamentally change Turkish Kurdish attitudes.
If the referendum briefly soured Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish relations, it failed to undermine the basic understanding underlying a relationship that could have guided Turkey’s approach towards the Kurds in Syria even if dealing with Iraqi Kurds may have been easier because, unlike Turkish Kurds, they had not engaged in political violence against Turkey.
The notion that there was no alternative to the Turkish intervention in Syria is further countered by the fact that Turkish PKK negotiations that started in 2012 led a year later to a ceasefire and a boosting of efforts to secure a peaceful resolution.
The talks prompted imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan to publish a letter endorsing the ceasefire, the disarmament and withdrawal from Turkey of PKK fighters, and a call for an end to the insurgency. Mr. Ocalan predicted that 2013 would be the year in which the Turkish Kurdish issues would be resolved peacefully.
The PKK’s military leader, Cemil Bayik, told the BBC three years later that “we don’t want to separate from Turkey and set up a state. We want to live within the borders of Turkey on our own land freely.”
The talks broke down in 2015 against the backdrop of the Syrian war and the rise as a US ally of the United States in the fight against the Islamic State of the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
Bitterly opposed to the US-YPG alliance, Turkey demanded that the PKK halt its resumption of attacks on Turkish targets and disarm prior to further negotiations.
Turkey responded to the breakdown and resumption of violence with a brutal crackdown in the southeast of the country and on the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).
Nonetheless, in a statement issued from prison earlier this year that envisioned an understanding between Turkey and Syrian Kurdish forces believed to be aligned with the PKK, Mr. Ocalan declared that “we believe, with regard to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the problems in Syria should be resolved within the framework of the unity of Syria, based on constitutional guarantees and local democratic perspectives. In this regard, it should be sensitive to Turkey’s concerns.”
Turkey’s emergence as one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s foremost investors and trading partners in exchange for Iraqi Kurdish acquiescence in Turkish countering the PKK’s presence in the region could have provided inspiration for a US-sponsored safe zone in northern Syria that Washington and Ankara had contemplated.
The Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish understanding enabled Turkey to allow an armed Iraqi Kurdish force to transit Turkish territory in 2014 to help prevent the Islamic State from conquering the Syrian city of Kobani.
A safe zone would have helped “realign the relationship between Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its Syrian offshoot… The safe-zone arrangements… envision(ed) drawing down the YPG presence along the border—a good starting point for reining in the PKK, improving U.S. ties with Ankara, and avoiding a potentially destructive Turkish intervention in Syria,” Turkey scholar Sonar Cagaptay suggested in August.
The opportunity that could have created the beginnings of a sustainable solution that would have benefitted Turkey as well as the Kurds fell by the wayside with Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from northern Syria.
In many ways, Mr. Erdogan’s decision to opt for a military solution fits the mould of a critical mass of world leaders who look at the world through a civilizational prism and often view national borders in relative terms.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin pointed the way with his 2008 intervention in Georgia and the annexation in 2014 of Crimea as well as Russia’s stirring of pro-Russian insurgencies in two regions of Ukraine.
Mr. Erdogan appears to believe that if Mr. Putin can pull it off, so can he.
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