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Kurdish Referendum: More Military Threats to Independent Kurdistan

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Despite the opposition of the central government in Baghdad, Kurdish political parties agreed to hold a referendum in the region on September 25th, 2017. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) said that the referendum includes disputed areas, such as oil-rich province of Kirkuk, which is claimed by the Kurds and Baghdad.

Unquestionably, there will be some serious security and military threats that the KRG will not able to handle on their own. This piece details the security threats (in classical term military threats). So, the question in everybody’s mind these days is what will be the military threats to Iraqi Kurdistan if the region announces its independence?

MPF and Independent Kurdistan

Iran is pursuing a policy of strengthening its influence and interests in other countries, relying on non-governmental actors after the success of the Hezbollah support experiment, which is now in control of the Lebanese decisions. This type of dependence on governmental and non-governmental organizations are prevalent in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria, where Iran officially supports groups such as Ansar Allah led by Abdul Malik al-Houthi, which seized control of the Yemeni capital of Sana’a in late September 2014, and dozens of Iraqi militias active in both Syria and Iraq, such as Asaib Ah Al-Badr, Saraya al-Kharasani, and other Shiite groups operating under the cover of the People’s Mobilization Forces (MPF). Most of the Shiite militias and factions were formed by local volunteers under the PMF. Even though the Iraqi Parliament acknowledged PMF as a legal force, Abadi is too weak to take on the militias directly.  

The MPF objective encompasses eliminating terrorism in Iraq and in the region, to protecting the regime and the political process in Iraq, as per Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, who is the deputy chairman of MPF Committee. Shia militants are concerned with protecting the regime and the political process, which is an uncharted territory for the PMF. It is an explicit declaration of the possibility of turning it into a sensitive and dangerous situation. The PMF are a great danger, but their threat is limited to certain (disputed) areas. These militants have fought to turn Iraq into a Shiite state that answer to the mullahs in Tehran. The next battle for Iraqi Shiite forces is to guarantee the territorial integrity of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, so that Iran (and its allies) can move unhindered throughout these regions. The partition of Iraq is the redline for Tehran, and in the case of a referendum and declaration of independence of northern Iraq, the PMF will be mobilized against the KRG. Some believes that the threat of war by the MPF against KRG arises not from the referendum, but from the disputed areas will be included in the upcoming referendum. Nonetheless, several indicators show that PMF will fuel the sectarian situation already present in Iraqi society, and will increase its division, which will inevitably lead to a new civil war and security threats aimed at the Kurdish entity. The war already took place in the disputed areas (Tuz Khurmatu) between Kurdish forces and MPF, after intervention in those areas by Peshmarga forces.   

Arming Minorities in Disputed Areas

The Iraqi parliament voted earlier in favor of the PMF as an official formation and part of the Iraqi armed forces, authorizing them to enter any part of the country to liberate them from terrorist gangs, maintain security in other areas, and defend it against any potential threat. This grants them the flexibility to move into areas that are under the control of the Iraqi army prior to the arrival of ISIS, particularly the disputed areas between the Baghdad and Erbil. It is expected that the MPF would encircle the borders of the Kurdish Region via the exploitation and arming of minorities, particularly Shia Turkmen, who have sought PMF patronage to increase their local autonomy. It is very vital that the road be closed for the plan to work.

Tensions between the Shiite popular crowd and the Kurdish peshmerga already reached unprecedented levels. Clashes erupted in Tuz Kurmatu after the attack on the headquarters of the Peshmerga forces in town, resulting in casualties on both sides. Some factions of the PMF are also arming the tribes of Tuz Khurmato following recent security developments, which began to widen through the mutual targeting of the Peshmerga and civilians. The PMF in the Tuz will not stay long, but arming the tribes will prevent the Peshmerga from coming back to Tuz to create tensions.

Tensions between Shiite militias and Kurds is not only prevalent in Tuz Khirramato district south of Kirkuk, but the crowd is also taking advantage of the battle of Mosul and use it as a cover to approach the borders of the Kurdistan region, as per their earlier threats. Recently, there was a warning that an armed conflict might erupt between both sides over disagreements on the security of the Sinjar area in Nineveh province.  The crowd entering Sinjar, west of Mosul, could very well lead to a war. The leader of the PMF, Jawad Talibawi, already launched an attack on the Peshmerga, and explained that removing them from Nineveh will be easier than expelling ISIS. He also called for the need to subject the entire territory of Iraq to the control of the state, threatening to use force against the Peshmerga in the event of “non-compliance” to the orders of Abadi. Recently, dozens of Yazidis Peshmerga, including military officials who left their ranks and joined the PMF, said that they expect the MPF to help the Yezidis return to their areas and provide the necessary assistance because they are Iraqi forces, and we must respect them as we respect any other fighting force.

Recruiting Kurdish Citizen

The economic situation that the region is going through due to its reduced budget from the central government in Baghdad and the drop in oil prices resulted in increased unemployment; which provided a good environment for PMF to attract the people of the region to join its ranks and promote its agenda, which differs from the one espoused by Baghdad. Those who register will receive 1,100,000 Iraqi dinars per month, and if they have families, they will earn 250,000 dinars more, and if killed, will be considered martyrs, and their families will be granted 15 million Iraqi dinars and a piece of land. Mohammed al-Bayati, the official of the northern section of the PMF, admitted that “a small number” of the region’s citizens and figures had joined them. Some were told that they could form military regiments. Al-Bayati also pointed out that “The Kurds who join the popular mobilization are deployed on the border line of the disputed areas of Kirkuk and Khanaqin because we need them there”.  The registration of volunteers from the Kurdistan region into the ranks of the PMF in the Kurdistan region is reminiscent of the previous regime, which used volunteers to fight Kurdish forces.

In addition, the Iraqi government can further threaten the Kurdish region by preventing the passage of arms, weapons, and ammunition to the KGR, and especially to those partaking in the international coalition against ISIS. Even the United States does not prefer to send direct military assistance to the KRG. The central government may try to sign a security agreement with neighboring countries (Iran and Turkey) to allow for the direct intervention in Iraq through their respective military forces, and the establishment of bases in northern Iraq. Baghdad has been unable to control the regions bordering both countries. On July 23rd, 2017, Iran and Iraq signed a military agreement to step up military cooperation, which also includes border security, logistical, and training support. Despite their disputes, the Iraqi government will take a parallel step with Turkey to militarily contain Iraqi Kurdistan.

In terms of difficulties of referendum, the most prominent is the rejection of the Shiites and Sunnis for independence of the region. The public opinions of Iraqi Arabs (Shiites and Sunnis) have rejected the partition of the country; they have not even welcome federalism. The disputed areas are inhabited by a mixture of Sunnis Arabs, Turkmen, and Kurds. The Arab (even Turkmen) nationalist could probably form semi-military organizations to fight Kurdish forces, compelling the Kurds to leave, even abducting and killing them in areas beyond the control of KRG. For instance; after announcing holding referendum in September 2017, the citizens of the Failli Kurds are currently being exposed to various types of threats of killing, displacement, and looting in some areas.

Externally, the military threats are as serious internally as it is externally. The neighboring countries will expose military threats to the Kurdistan region. Iranian and Turkish planes and artillery have constantly bombed border villages in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, targeting elements and positions of PJAK and PKK, YPG, and SDF in northern Iraq, including Sinjar.

The neighboring countries – particularly Iran; might try to create and bring Jihadist to border regions between Kurdistan and Iran in order to destabilize the region.  Ansar al-Islam fi Kurdistan (Jund al-Islam) bases were in and around the villages of Biyara and Tawela, which lied northeast of the town of Halabja in the Hawraman region of Sulaimaniya province bordering Iran. The PUK claims that dozens of Al-Qaeda fighters joined Ansar Al-Islam in Iraq after 9/11 attacks, with as many as 57 “Arab Afghan” fighters entering Kurdistan via Iran. Taken together with credible reports of the return of some Ansar al-Islam fighters to Iraqi Kurdistan through Iran suggest that these fighters have received at least limited support from Iranian sources. It is therefore not surprising that the Iranian government is repeating their previous endeavor when dealing with the Kurdish state. Similarly, Turkey might use Turkmen in Kirkuk and other areas to destabilize the security situation in the Kurdistan region and disputed areas by arming and mobilizing them.

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Eurasianism wins in Turkey even if ideologue loses election

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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He’s been in and out of prison during Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rule and is running against the president in this weekend’s Turkish elections with no chance of defeating him and little hope of winning a seat in parliament.

Yet, Dogu Perincek wields significant influence in Turkey’s security and intelligence establishment and sees much of his Eurasianist ideology reflected in Mr. Erdogan’s foreign policy.

With Mr. Erdogan likely to emerge victorious from Sunday’s election despite the opposition posing its most serious challenge to date, Mr. Perincek looks set to be a winner even if he does not make it into parliament.

Messrs. Erdogan and Perincek seem at first glance poles apart. Mr. Perincek is a maverick socialist and a militant secularist whose conspiratorial worldview identifies the United States at the core of all evil. By contrast, Mr. Erdogan carries his Islamism and nationalism on his sleeve.

Nonetheless, Mr. Perincek’s philosophy and world of contacts in Russia, China, Iran and Syria has served Mr. Erdogan well in recent years. His network and ideology has enabled the president to cosy up to Russia; smoothen relations with China; build an alliance with Iran, position Turkey as a leading player in an anti-Saudi, anti UAE front in the Middle East; and pursue his goal of curtailing Kurdish nationalism in Syria.

Tacit cooperation between Messrs. Erdogan and Perincek is a far cry from the days that he spent in prison accused of having been part of the Ergenekon conspiracy that allegedly involved a deep state cabal plotting to overthrow the government in 2015.

It was during his six years prison in that Mr. Perincek joined forces with Lt. Gen. Ismail Hakki Pekin, the former head of the Turkey’s military intelligence, who serves as vice-chairman of his Vatan Partisi or Homeland Party.

His left-wing ideology that in the past was supportive of the outlawed Kurdish Workers Party (PPK) viewed as a terrorist organization by the Erdogan government, has not stopped Mr. Perincek from becoming a player in NATO member Turkey’s hedging of its regional bets.

Together with Mr. Pekin, who has extensive contacts in Moscow that include Alexander Dugin, a controversial Eurasianist extreme right-winger who is believed to be close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Mr. Perincek mediated the reconciliation between Moscow and Ankara following the Turkish air force’s downing of a Russian fighter in 2015. The two men were supported in their endeavour by Turkish businessmen close to Mr. Erdogan and ultra-nationalist Eurasianist elements in the military.

Eurasianism in Turkey was buoyed by increasingly strained relations between the Erdogan government and the West. Mr. Erdogan has taken issue with Western criticism of his introduction of a presidential system with far-reaching powers that has granted him almost unlimited power.

He has also blasted the West for refusing to crack down on the Hizmet movement led by Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish imam who lives in exile in Pennsylvania, whom Mr. Erdogan holds responsible for an unsuccessful coup in 2016, in which more than 200 people were killed.

Mr. Erdogan has rejected Western criticism of his crackdown on the media and dismissal from public sector jobs and/or arrest of tens of thousands accused of being followers of Mr. Gulen.

Differences over Syria and US support for a Syrian Kurdish group aligned with the PKK have intensified pro-Eurasianist thinking that has gained currency among bureaucrats and security forces as well as in think thanks and academia. The influence of Eurasianist generals was boosted in 2016 when they replaced officers who were accused of having participated in the failed coup.

Eurasianism as a concept borrows elements of Kemalism, the philosophy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the visionary who carved Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire; Turkish nationalism; socialism; and radical secularism.

It traces its roots to Kadro, an influential leftist magazine published in Turkey between 1932 and 1934 and Yon, a left-wing magazine launched in the wake of a military coup in 1960 that became popular following yet another military takeover in 1980.

Eurasianism is opposed to liberal capitalism and globalization; believes that Western powers want to carve up Turkey; and sees Turkey’s future in alignment with Russia, Central Asia, and China.

Mr. Perincek’s vision is shared by hardliners in Iran, including the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, who advocate an Iranian pivot to the east on the grounds that China, Russia and other members of the Beijing-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) were more reliable partners than Europe, let alone the United States.

The Guards believe that Iran stands to significantly benefit as a key node in China’s infrastructure-driven Belt and Road initiative and will not be confronted by China on its human rights record.

Some Iranian hardliners have suggested that China’s principle of non-interference means that Beijing will not resist Iran’s support of regional proxies like Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia, Shiite militias in Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen in the way the United States does.

Their vision was strengthened by US president Donald J. Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the 2015 international nuclear agreement with Iran. China, Russia and Europe have vowed to uphold the deal.

Iranian empathy for Eurasianism has been reinforced by Chinese plans to invest $30 billion in Iranian oil and gas fields, and $40 billion in Iran’s mining industry as well as the willingness of Chinese banks to extend loans at a time that Mr. Trump was seeking to reimpose sanctions.

Turkey’s embrace of the Eurasianist idea takes on added significance after Russia and the European Union slapped sanctions on each other because of the dispute over Russian intervention in Ukraine. The EU sanctions halted $15.8 billion in European agricultural supports to Russia. Russian countermeasures prevent shipment of those products via Russia to China.

Mr. Perincek may, however, be pushing the envelope of his influence in his determination to restore relations between Turkey and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“The first thing that we will do after victory in the election is that we will invite Bashar Assad to Ankara and we will welcome him at the airport. We see no limitations and barriers in developing relations between Turkey and Syria and we will make our utmost efforts to materialize this objective,” Mr. Perincek vowed in a campaign speech.

More in line with Mr. Erdogan’s vision is Mr. Perincek’s admiration for China. “China today represents hope for the whole humanity. We have to keep that hope alive… Every time I visited China, I encountered a new China. I always returned to Turkey with the feelings of both surprise and admiration,” Mr. Perincek told China’s state-run Xinhua news agency.

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Bahrain’s Peaceful Gandhi might be executed

Sondoss Al Asaad

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Tomorrow, Thursday, 21 June 2018, Bahrain’s High Criminal Court is expected to hand down the maximum sentence possible against the opposition leader Sheikh Ali Salman, which might be the death penalty. Sheikh Salman’s trial is politically motivated and based on fabricated and arbitrary charges of espionage. Sheikh Salman; detained in December 2014 in his capacity as the now-dissolved Al-Wefaq opposition bloc’s Secretary-General, was sentenced to four years on alleged charges of “inciting disobedience and hatred.”

However, in November 2017, he was shockingly charged for “conspiring with Qatar” to overthrow the regime. Bahrain’s Public Prosecution relied its accusation on the well-known telephone conversation between Shiekh Salman and the Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassem, in 2011; which aimed to resolve the 14 February 2011’s unrest. This call, indeed, stems from an open and documented mediation attempt that was originally encouraged by the United States.

In April 2018, the U.S. State Department issued a report in which it expresses concern over the continued arbitrarily prosecution of Sheikh Salman. Urgently, the international community, the United States and the United Kingdom, mainstream media, press, human rights organisations, activists and all free people around the globe must pressure Bahrain to immediately and unconditionally release Sheikh Salman as well as all other prisoners of conscience. In addition, the government must halt this political unfair trial and reinstate all arbitrarily dissolved political blocs.

It is worthy to mention that Sheikh Ali Salman was detained in 2014 due to his bloc; i.e. Al-Wefaq’s boycott to the parliamentary elections, then. Al-Wefaq has long complained the political and economic discrimination, lack of impunity and the absence of an independent judiciary. Interestingly, the bizarre allegations were raised once the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)’s states witnessed a diplomatic dispute with Qatar, since June 2017.

Bahrain’s Public Prosecution has called in March for the “maximum penalty” against Sheikh Salman and his two in absentia co-defendants, who are too figures in Al-Wefaq. The three could face capital punishment on politically motivated charges of establishing “intelligence links with Qatar […] to undermine its political and economic status as well as its national interest and to overthrow the political system.”

The Bahraini authorities have long suppressed the opposition particularly this time; prior the elections for the lower house of Bahrain’s National Assembly in November, which constitute a quite vivid and blatant violation of the fundamental rights to freedom, fair trial, free expression, and free association. In fact, this groundless trial and the ongoing clampdown have virtually left no political freedom in the country. Clearly, Bahrain has been openly violating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Sheikh Salman is currently serving his 4-years sentence in Jau Central Prison, along with the rest of the opposition leaders. His co-defendant, in this unfair trial, Sheikh Hassan Sultan was publicly defamed in pro-government media, in June 2017.  At the same time, the National Security Agency (NSA), repeatedly detained and tortured his son, in an attempt to coerce him into becoming an informant in order to target his father; who is exiled and has been arbitrarily stripped of his citizenship in 2015.

In 2016, Bahrain forcibly dissolved Al-Wefaq; seized its assets, blocking its website, and closing its headquarters. It has taken similar action against nearly all opposition groups, including Amal and leftist blocs Al-Wehdawi and Wa’ad. The government’s systematic campaign against the opposition has intensified despite the UN Universal Periodic Review’s recommendations, in May 2017, which called on Bahrain to “review convictions, commute sentences, or drop charges for all persons imprisoned solely for non-violent political expression.”

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The Saudi-Moroccan spat: Competing for the mantle of moderate Islam

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Lurking in the background of a Saudi-Moroccan spat over World Cup hosting rights and the Gulf crisis is a more fundamental competition for the mantle of spearheading promotion of a moderate interpretation of Islam.

It’s a competition in which history and long-standing religious diplomacy gives Morocco a leg up compared to Saudi Arabia, long a citadel of Sunni Muslim intolerance and ultra-conservatism.

Saudi Arabia is the new, baggage-laden kid on the block with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman asserting that he is returning the kingdom to a top-down, undefined form of moderate Islam.

To be sure, Prince Mohammed has dominated headlines in the last year with long-overdue social reforms such as lifting the ban on women’s driving and loosening restrictions on cultural expression and entertainment.

The crown prince has further bolstered his projection of a kingdom that is putting ultra-conservative social and religious strictures behind it by relinquishing control of Brussels’ Saudi-managed Great Mosque and reports that he is severely cutting back on decades-long, global Saudi financial support for Sunni Muslim ultra-conservative educational, cultural and religious institutions.

Yet, Prince Mohammed has also signalled the limits of his definition of moderate Islam. His recurrent rollbacks have often been in response to ultra-conservative protests not just from the ranks of the kingdom’s religious establishment but also segments of the youth that constitute the mainstay of his popularity.

Just this week, Prince Mohammed sacked Ahmad al-Khatib, the head of entertainment authority he had established. The government gave no reason for Mr. Al-Khatib’s dismissal, but it followed online protests against a controversial Russian circus performance in Riyadh, which included women wearing “indecent clothes.”

The protests were prompted by a video on social media that featured a female performer in a tight pink costume.

In a similar vein, the Saudi sports authority closed a female fitness centre in Riyadh in April over a contentious promotional video that appeared to show a woman working out in leggings and a tank-top. A spokesman for the royal court, Saud al-Qahtani, said the closure was in line with the kingdom’s pursuit of “moderation without moral breakdown.”

Saudi sports czar Turki bin Abdel Muhsin Al-Asheikh said “the gym had its licence suspended over a deceitful video that circulated on social media promoting the gym disgracefully and breaching the kingdom’s code of conduct.”

Mr. Al-Sheikh’s sports authority moreover apologized recently for airing a promotional video of a World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc., event that showed scantily clad female wrestlers drawing euphoric cheers from men and women alike.

To be sure, the United States, which repeatedly saw ultra-conservative Islam as a useful tool during the Cold War, was long supportive of Saudi propagation of Islamic puritanism that also sought to counter the post-1979 revolutionary Iranian zeal.

Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia’s more recent wrestle with what it defines as moderate and effort to rebrand itself contrasts starkly with long-standing perceptions of Morocco as an icon of more liberal interpretations of the faith.

While Saudi Islamic scholars have yet to convince the international community that they have had a genuine change of heart, Morocco has emerged as a focal point for the training of European and African imams in cooperation with national governments.

Established three years ago, Morocco’s Mohammed VI Institute for Imam Training has so far graduated 447 imams; 212 Malians, 37 Tunisians, 100 Guineans, 75 Ivorians, and 23 Frenchmen.

The institute has signed training agreements with Belgium, Russia and Libya and is negotiating understandings with Senegal.

Critics worry that Morocco’s promotion of its specific version of Islam, which fundamentally differs from the one that was long prevalent in Saudi Arabia, still risks Morocco curbing rather than promoting religious diversity.

Albeit on a smaller scale than the Saudi campaign, Morocco has in recent years launched a mosque building program in West Africa as part of its soft power policy and effort to broaden its focus that was long centred on Europe rather than its own continent.

On visits to Africa, King Mohammed VI makes a point of attending Friday prayers and distributing thousands of copies of the Qur’an.

In doing so Morocco benefits from the fact that its religious ties to West Africa date back to the 11th century when the Berber Almoravid dynast converted the region to Islam. King Mohammed, who prides himself on being a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, retains legitimacy as the region’s ‘Commander of the Faithful.’

West African Sufis continue to make annual pilgrimages to a religious complex in Fez that houses the grave of Sidi Ahmed Tijani, the 18th century founder of a Sufi order.

All of this is not to say that Morocco does not have an extremism problem of its own. Militants attacked multiple targets in Casablanca in 2003, killing 45 people. Another 17 died eight years later in an attack in Marrakech. Militants of Moroccan descent were prominent in a spate of incidents in Europe in recent years.

Nonetheless, protests in 2011 at the time of the popular Arab revolts and more recently have been persistent but largely non-violent.

Critics caution however that Morocco is experiencing accelerated conservatism as a result of social and economic grievances as well as an education system that has yet to wholeheartedly embrace more liberal values.

Extremism is gaining ground,” warned Mohamed Elboukili, an academic and human rights activist, pointing to an increasing number of young women who opt to cover their heads.

“You can say to me this scarf doesn’t mean anything. Yes, it doesn’t mean anything, but it’s isolating the girl from the boy. Now she’s wearing the scarf, but later on she’s not going to shake hands with the boy . . . Later on she’s not going to study in the same class with boys. Those are the mechanisms of an Islamist state, that’s how it works,” Mr. Elboukili said.

Mr. Elboukili’s observations notwithstanding, it is Morocco rather than Saudi Arabia that many look to for the promotion of forms of Islam that embrace tolerance and pluralism. Viewed from Riyadh, Morocco to boot has insisted on pursuing an independent course instead of bowing to Saudi dictates.

Morocco refused to support Saudi Arabia in its debilitating, one-year-old economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar but recently broke off relations with Iran, accusing the Islamic republic of supporting Frente Polisario insurgents in the Western Sahara.

Moroccan rejection of Saudi tutelage poses a potential problem for a man like Prince Mohammed, whose country is the custodian of Islam’s two holiest cities and who has been ruthless in attempting to impose his will on the Middle East and North Africa and position the kingdom as the region’s undisputed leader.

Yet, Saudi Arabia’s ability to compete for the mantle of moderate Islam is likely to be determined in the kingdom itself rather than on a regional stage. And that will take far more change than Prince Mohammed has been willing to entertain until now.

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