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Hezbollah and the war in Syria

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[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] T [/yt_dropcap]he war in Syria against Assad’s Alawites and his post-Baathist State began with the people’s uprising of March-April 2011. Mass demonstrations in the traditional Sunni areas of Hama and Homs, to which the pro-government organizations responded with rallies supporting Bashar al-Assad and his regime.

It was the usual pattern of the Arab Springs: civil unrest, mass and non-violent uprising, to which the regime was bound to react violently, thus leading to radicalization in which the jihad “foreign legion” set in.

This should happen after the old Rais leaving and after the international organizations certifying it is a “democratic fight”.

Gaddafi’s fall was triggered off by a small revolt of some prisoners’ relatives in Benghazi.

Later the Libyan militants of the “League for Human Rights” came – of whom there was no trace before – and shortly after a submarine of the French Navy arrived, bringing weapons and trainers.

Again in 2011, in Tahrir Square, Cairo, also the sister of Al Zawahiri, the leader of Al Qaeda, participated in the demonstrations, while the team of stewards for controlling the crowd in those more or less spontaneous demonstrations was provided by the armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.

At the time, one of the books recommended by the Ikhwan of the Muslim Brotherhood was exactly “The Politics of Nonviolent Action” by Gene Sharp, the founder of the Albert Einstein Institution, a real handbook for organising non-military and non-violent subversion.

That text and that technique had already been found in the techniques used by the OTPOR network in Serbia, a group opposing Milosevic’s regime.

OTPOR was a group of young people trained in the US Diplomatic Mission to Budapest, Hungary.

In fact, after the crisis of the Syrian regime following the 2011 events, the barbed wire was removed from the sensitive borders and Sunni jihadists began to arrive in Syria from Jordan and Turkey, who immediately settled on the border between Syria and the Lebanon – or better between Al Qusayr and the Ghouta region – to seal and hold Damascus as if in a vice.

It is also worth recalling that, even before rising to power, Bashar al-Assad was directly responsible for the Lebanese dossier and, hence, for the close and direct relations between the Syrian regime and Hezbollah.

The situation changed with the bombing of the Syrian intelligence headquarters in Rawda Square on July 18, 2012, in which the following people died: the Syrian Defence Minister; Bashar’s cousin and Defence Deputy-Minister, Asef Shawkat; the Deputy-President of the Republic, Hassan Turkmani, and finally the Head of the intelligence services, Hafez Makhlouf.

It has not been ascertained yet whether the attack was perpetrated by a suicide bomber or was carried out with explosives detonated remotely.

They were explicitly mentioned, as “brothers” and “martyrs”, by the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, in his speech of May 25, 2013 expressing the Lebanese Shiite group’s full military and operational support to Assad.

Hezbollah had already intervened with its “shadow armies”, in the first phase of the clashes between the Alawite leader’ Syrian Arab Army and the Sunni and jihadist forces, but only on the narrow border line between Syria and the Lebanon.

Hence, the “resistance axis” between Iran, Hezbollah and Assads’ Syria was created by means of weapons – an “axis” that the Syrian and the Shiite Lebanese propaganda had been spreading for years.

The Iranian, Syrian and Hezbollah policy line was opposed to a Sunni but, more explicitly Saudi, project to conquer Syria, marginalize the Alawites and confine them only on the Mediterranean coast and later come to a clash or to Iran’s regionalization.

The first slogans of the pro-Assad protesters, in 2011, were mainly against the Saudi king and sometimes against the Jordanian one.

Certainly, today the presence of Hezbollah in the Syrian conflict has proved to be decisive in the defeat of the various organization of the Sunni jihad and the Free Syrian Army – born from a split of Assad’s Armed Forces, again in 2011, and later turned into an instrument for projection of the Turkish force, especially in Northern Syria.

The losses of the Lebanese “Party of God” are supposed be at least 1,500 soldiers, while Israel has not yet decided how to move in Syria, except for the defence of the Golan Heights, thus waiting for its various enemies to destroy one another.

With one exception, made explicit precisely by Prime Minister Netanyahu in June 2013: we need to evaluate and respond to the new and disturbing presence of Hezbollah in Syria.

Moreover, in addition to the “resistance axis” between Iran, Syria and the Lebanese “Party of God”, we must also consider Hamas in the Gaza Strip, which resumed its official relations with Iran in July 2016, with Iran providing economic aid and military support while – as stated, at the time, by Hamas political bureau – “Saudi Arabia made our proposals fade away”.

It should be noted that, in the Yemenite war, Hamas – the political-military arm of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood – had defended President Mansour Hadi against the Houthis, namely the Shiite followers of the Seventh and Last Imam, supported by Iran.

Yemen is clearly the bridgehead for controlling Saudi Arabia and having access to the Persian Gulf but also, indirectly, to the Suez Canal.

It is also strange that the EU dependence on international trade has not led the European decision-makers to think that whoever controls that region holds in his hands the jugular vein of the whole Eurasian peninsula’s maritime trade.

Currently, however, the European decision-makers’ strategic culture and sensitivity is virtually zero.

Moreover, the presence of the “Party of God” in Syria allows a wide deployment and dislocation of forces, as well as a sort of Syria’s “colonization” by Iran in exchange for its strong support to Hezbollah just inside the Lebanon .

Hezbollah has become hegemonic in the Lebanon and hence can be turned into a kind of “Middle East army” for the entire Shiite world gravitating around Iran.

Between Iran and the Lebanon, thanks to the Shiite “Party of God”, a series of “demographic gaps” between Syria and Iraq towards the Lebanon can be created – and this is already happening today.

The poles of this new Iranian Shiite demographics are the areas of Kefraya and Fuah, from where the residents – mostly Shiites – have been directed to the West Damascus neighbourhood – characterized by a Sunni majority – while the latter will settle in Kefraya and Fuah, in the areas vacated by the Shiites, if the international agreements on the “Four cities” still apply.

Therefore Iran wants full continuity with the Lebanon and this is the reason why it is planning a real population exchange between Northern and Southern Syria.

This also implies Shiite control of the Turkish-Syrian border – and hence of NATO.

Furthermore Hezbollah will settle in Madaya and Zabadani, the cities it has contributed to defend from the “takfiri” (the Sunni apostates) and from “terrorists” – just to use the terminology of the Lebanese Shiite propaganda.

In Daraa, 300 Iraqi Shiite families have already settled in the areas vacated by the Sunni forces after the “ceasefire” of last September.

We can easily understand what this means for the Jewish State’ security.

A pincer-shaped movement between North and South, between the border with Southern Lebanon, dominated by the “Party of God”, and the South, with Hamas which is armed and trained by Iran, is one of the worst possible scenarios for Israel.

Only a new relationship with Egypt and Jordan could strategically counterbalance this threat.

As President Trump has already stated, currently the United States does not necessarily want a Syria without Assad, because “it is up to the Syrian people to choose” and, in any case, “Assad is better than the jihadists”.

Furthermore, the Syrian President responds to President Trump’s advances assuming that “Syria and the United States can be natural allies”.

In more explicit terms, Assad wants to be part of the new alliance “against terrorism” in the region, but the problem is that the United States will never accept strategic continuity from Tehran to the Roman temples of Baalbek on the Lebanese coast, nor strategic closure towards Israel.

A good possibility of solving the issue lies in the Russian presence in the region.

Russia has every interest in supporting the Jewish State and an equal need to stay and control Syria so as to prevent Iranian pressures on its military bases in Tartus and the control of its communication lines in the Syrian territory.

Obviously President Trump does not want Iran standing in his way in the future Middle East “anti-terror League” – and certainly he does not want to have to deal with Ansar Allah of the Houthi rebels in Yemen, with the Fatemyoun Division of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, created in Afghanistan by Shiites who fought in Syria, and with the Zaynaboyoun Brigade of the over one thousand Pakistani Shiites, as well as – of course – with Hezbollah.

In the plans of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, the “Shiite highway” goes from Iran to Iraq up inside Syria; it enters north of Aleppo up to the West-Mediterranean coast and then turns south into the Lebanon up to its border with Israel, in Naquora Maron el-Ras.

However, the tension between Russia and Iran, which could favour a new presence of the United States in the region, is already visible.

Vladimir Putin clearly wants Hezbollah to leave the Syrian territory soon.

Obviously Iran has no interest in pressing the “Party of God” to go back into the Lebanese ranks – Hezbollah is essential to control the above-mentioned “Shiite highway”.

Moreover, Bashar al-Assad is too experienced not to understand that delivering much of his country to the Iranians and to the Lebanese Shiite will push him politically into a corner and will deprive him of the essential Russian support for his freedom of manoeuvre with Iran.

The US Congress and the six countries of the Gulf Security Council also require the implementation of the above stated ”Agreement of the Four Cities”, namely Madaya, Al Fuah, Kafariya and Zabadani, the cities “punished” both by the Shiite and the Sunni jihadist forces.

The Agreement, reached at the same time as the Astana ceasefire, envisages that sick people and other people at risk be evacuated and medicines and food be delivered to the residents.

However, as you may expect, clearing out a city means to conquer it.

As stated before the US Congress, the best way to weaken Hezbollah is to block the Iranian arms shipments reaching the Lebanon through Syria.

A great Sunni bloc in Central Syria would avoid the strategic continuity between Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolution Guards, thus enabling Bashar al-Assad to rule a territory large enough to have credible power in the region.            

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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Post Trump Palestine

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Al-Walaja, a Palestinian village in the West Bank. Photo: UNRWA/Marwan Baghdadi

The unconditional United States’ political, financial and military support to Israel enabled the latter to occupy the Palestinian territories. The former became involved in Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an arbiter to resolve the issue. But the foreign policy of US has always remained tilt to Israeli interests. From recognizing Israel as sovereign state in 1947 to accepting Jerusalem as capital of Israel has clearly unearthed the biased attitude of US for Israel.

Similarly, Trump also adopted the traditional stance of Washington on Palestine, i.e. outright support for Israel. Trump’s policy regarding Israeli-Palestinian conflict was more aggressive but not in contradiction with his predecessors’. For instance, he brought into reality the law passed by US congress in 1995 that recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, shifted US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, closed office of Palestine Liberation Organization PLO in Washington DC in Sept 2018 and closed US consulate in East Jerusalem the area under Palestinian control. His bigotry against Palestinians unveiled more distinctly when he announced defunding of United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), the UN agency that provides food, education and healthcare to the refugees. Moreover during his regime in November 2018 the state department of US proclaimed that the construction of Israeli settlements in West Bank does not come under the ambit of violation of international humanitarian laws. Certainly, the belligerent policies in last four years of trump era paved the way for the colonization of Palestine by Israel and helped the latter to put unlawful restrictions on Palestinians making them deprived of all civil liberties and peace.

As per world report-2020by Human Rights Watch HRW, Palestinian citizens are restrained from all basic necessities of life such that, education, basic healthcare, clean water and electricity. The movement of people and goods to and from Gaza strip is also inhibited. According to World Health Organization WHO 34 percent of applications by Palestinians, for medical appointments outside Gaza strip, were not addressed by Israeli army. Moreover, HRW report states that the Israeli government destroyed 504 homes of Palestinians in West Bank during 2019 and facilitated 5995 housing settlements for Israelis. The country is trying at utmost to eradicate indigenous Palestinians from their home land. According to United Nations’ Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs UNOCHA, the demolitions of Palestinian homes displaced 642 people in 2019 and 472 in 2018.Moreover, the illicit attacks by Israeli side have killed hundreds of innocent citizens in the same years. According to UNOCHA on November 11, 2020, 71 innocent Palestinian citizens were killed by Israeli forces while 11,453 were lethally injured in a single day. Furthermore, UN secretary general exhorted that Israeli armed forces have infringed the children’s rights during the conflict as in 2018, 56 Palestinian children were killed by Israeli armed forces.

While, other international actors criticized the Israeli annexations of the region and declared it as violation of international humanitarian laws, US supported the Israeli escalations in West Bank. The former also stopped aid support through USAID for Gaza strip where eighty percent of population depends upon aid. Such partial attitude of US has put the country outside the international consensus on the issue. Apparently, US pretend its position as arbiter but her policies accredited the colonization of Palestine by Israel.

Thus, it seems futile to expect any big change in US policies regarding Israeli-Palestinian issue during forthcoming administrations. However, the president-elect Joe Bidden may alter some of the trump’s decisions such as reopening of Palestine Liberation Organization PLO in Washington, resuming funding of UNRWA and reopening of US consulate in East Jerusalem.  But his policies will not contradict the congress’ stance on the issue. As, he and his team have clearly mentioned prior to elections that they will not shift back the US embassy to Tel Aviv as it seems politically and practically insensible to them. Moreover, Blinken, the candidate for secretary of state in Joe’s upcoming regime, made it clear through his controversial statements, that the imminent president will inherit historic US position on Palestine-Israel dispute. Further, Chinese expansionism, Russian intervention in American and European affairs and Iran nuclear deal issue would remain the main concerns of foreign affairs of US during initial period of Joe Biden’s regime. He is likely to favor the status quo in Palestine and remain focused on other foreign interests. In addition to this the inclination of Arabian Gulf to develop relations with Israel will also hinder the adherence for Palestinians from the gulf countries. Subsequently, it will enable Israelis to continue seizing the Palestinian territories into Israel and leave indigenous Palestinians stateless in their own land.

Summing up, it is significant for Palestinians to continue their struggle for the homeland and seek support from other international actors to marginalize Israel’s annexation of Palestinian territories. As well as, the peace accord of 1993 signed in between both nations, to share the holy land, should also be revoked by both countries.  Both nations should try to resolve the issue on equitable grounds by negotiations so that either side could not be deprived of its interests.

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An Enemy Among Us

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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. 

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Is Erdogan’s Obsession with Demirtas a Personal Vendetta or a Calculated Strategy?

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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.

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