Whatever happens, the New Syria which is currently reshaping will be the breaking point that will give rise to the new Middle East from which, however, the Russian Federation, the People’s Republic of China and even the United States will no longer be excluded or marginalized.
Those who currently think of a repetition of the Cold War on the banks of the Euphrates are badly mistaken.
Russia does not want the US expulsion from the Middle East, but only its reduction of status and rank. The same holds true also for China, which already has its troops in Syria training particular groups of Assad’ Syrian Arab Army, while Xie Xiaoyan is touring most of the Arab world involved in the Syrian conflict to propose China as a local and regional problem solver.
Furthermore, the Chinese regime has already infiltrated some units specialized in counter-guerrilla in Syria, designed to combating and eliminating the jihadists of Chinese origin in that region.
In short, Putin wants all the “rights of way” in the Greater Syria. He also wants to be the central mediator and broker there and later let China set in, also for the future reconstruction.
However, he is also thinking about a secondary inclusion of the United States and, above all, about the Russian central goal, namely to preserve the unity of its territory and of the Alawite regime.
On December 5 last, the Pentagon spokesman announced that the United States would “remain in Syria until needed to support its partners and prevent the return of terrorists”.
Moreover, it is worth recalling that the United States believes that Russia’s and Assad’s participation in the liberation of the Syrian territory was fully secondary.
In other words, the United States still wants to reshape the Syrian territory and to cantonize it according to religious and ethnic fault lines – sometimes even imaginative – and hence dominate a wide and important territory with little money and with the control of the various militias.
Indeed, we saw what happened in the Balkans.
It will be on this new mainly political clash that the destinies of Syria and the territorial part of the Greater Middle East will be played out.
These are the geopolitical borders between the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean that will be the bridge-territory of many important future political phenomena: the Iranian expansion in the middle of Asia, in its Shiite areas; the connection between the Gulf and the Mediterranean as the axis for the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative; the strategic link between Russia and Egypt and, in the future, its presence in the bases of Haftar’s “Operation Dignity” in Libya.
All this is currently emerging in Syria.
However, let us also analyze some other data: the US forces, with their 15 allies and their other 4,000 commandos stationed in Northern Syria, are deployed between the Kurdish areas to control and possibly destroy the axis being created from Teheran to Raqqa and from the ancient “capital” of the Caliphate towards Beirut, namely the Hezb’ollah headquarters.
A “Shiite continuity” that the United States considers the number 1 enemy in the region.
Furthermore, even Turkey will never accept a presence of the Iranian Republic in Syria, but meanwhile it is “clearing” the area of Afrin – the starting point of its future internal expansion in the region – from the YPG Kurds.
Another hypothesis to explain the phenomenon of the US-Kurdish positioning: the United States wants to create a line closing the Iran-Lebanon-Syria axis to any possibility of a Shiite attack on Israel.
Hence, indirectly, the United States wants to favour the Israeli-Saudi agreement.
Israel, however, knows that – in spite of everything – the Saudi economy has not recovered yet and that a very fragile national economy can never afford and withstand a long war.
Furthermore, Israel is well aware that an agreement with Russia can usefully and credibly stop a possible Iranian attack.
Nor will Israel ever accept a stabilization of any Iranian military unit on the Syrian territory.
According to Israel, also the above mentioned Teheran-Raqqa-Beirut line can become a fast transport line for the approximately 100,000 missiles available to the “Party of God”.
But now, probably, the Iranian global strategy in Syria may appear to be dangerous for both Russia and Syria itself.
Mohammad Bagheri, the Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, has announced that Iran wants to build a naval base in Syria.
A clear danger for Russia: its recently-enlarged Tartus base in the Mediterranean is thus brought under control by an allied, albeit foreign, power.
Moreover, now that Bashar al-Assad’s regime has strengthened and stabilized itself, Iran shows it has some other interest in addition to the usual bilateral relationship.
Nor has Iran ever liked the Astana talks designed to put an end to the conflict in Syria and make the United States return to the region, obviously not as primus inter pares, but as partner of a multipolar project. Russia, however, also wants to force the United States to be multipolar: it is like obliging Donald J. Trump to wear a pink ballerina tutu.
Nor can Russia hope to finance – on its own – the cost of reconstruction, which is today optimistically estimated at around 250 billion US dollars – perhaps not even with the help of China that has certainly much money, but has no intention to put it all in one basket – just to use an old American saying.
Finally, Russia does no longer want to crucify itself in Syria. Quite the reverse, if I remember rightly, the only Sufi Islamic mystic who had himself crucified – although in Baghdad, in 922 AD – was the mystic poet Al-Hallaj.
He was passionately studied by Louis Massignon, who redesigned the Middle East at the time of the Sykes-Picot Treaty, and also created the Alawite dominion and supremacy in the French-speaking Syria, probably believing he could find something of Al-Hallaj in the Islamic practice of that sect.
Hence Putin wants to have a clear field to protect his Tartus base, which will become the axis of Russia’s future maritime expansion in the Mediterranean. Nor does he want to have the Iranian base standing in his way to make all the military carriers of the NATO Navies reach the Syrian sea, alerted by the Iranian ones.
The Iranian Navy would at first enter the Mediterranean and then control the sea in front of the Lebanon. Later it would naturally turn to Israel and then it would begin to create threats against the various Sunni coastal countries.
Another hypothesis circulating in the groups close to Khamenei is that Iran could build another base – probably a submarine one – between Cyprus and some Dodecanese islands.
The four players, namely Russia, Turkey, Israel and Egypt, like none of these two options.
Moreover, in Syria, Iran supported Bashar al-Assad’s regime in many ways: the obligation imposed on the Hezb’ollah to make 9,200 Pasdaran get in on the action, right away in 2012; the weapons supplied to two local Shiite groups, especially to the Kata’ib al Imam Ali group; the recruitment of Shiite volunteers from Afghanistan and Pakistan, who were to create the Fatemiyon and the Zaynabiyun brigades, with the volunteers’ salaries ranging from 1000 US dollars per month up to 5,000.
Iran had set the following goals for its intervention in Syria: a) the elimination of Daesh-Isis; b) the return to the status quo ante; c) the preservation of its institutions, which would have certainly not withstood a Sunni victory in the neighboring friendly country.
It achieved those goals.
Currently, nobody can or probably want to oust Assad from power.
It was – at the beginning – the unifying myth of the Turkish Caliphate Sunnism, the elimination of Assad, when Erdogan railed against him and called for his hanging, although without ever explicitly naming him.
Everyone except Russia has entertained the idea of destabilizing Syria.
From this viewpoint, everyone except Russia has lost.
The United States was ridiculous when it urged to oust Bashar from power without even establishing a platform or developing an election project.
There is also the possibility that some US groups placed inside the “political-military system” still think about an all-out attack against Assad and his clan. However, what should they have to do at a later stage?
The Italian politician, Giancarlo Pajetta, comes to mind when, after having “occupied” the Prefecture of Milan following the attack on Togliatti, he phoned him to tell what he had done. And Togliatti said calmly: “Well, what will you do now?”.
All of a sudden, Trump has also ended a CIA programme designed to train terrorist groups with the sole aim of killing Assad.
A bad repetition of the ridiculous list of stratagems to kill Fidel Castro.
The only concrete policy in the region is the one of the United States which now continues to support the Kurds who fought the “Caliphate” with their traditional military organizations and conquered a quarter of its territory.
The United States will do so until it thinks about a new war on that territory to support Saudi Arabia or Israel.
In fact, another future problem will be to control the Turkish tensions on the Kurdish presence in Syria – another concrete objective to split Syria up which, sooner or later, will be used and pursued.
Now Turkey is thinking about the Kurds and is no longer interested in the internal power in Syria.
Moreover, the same great political-military operation made by Russia – with the cease-fire between the “rebels” and the government forces on all fronts, including that of Idlib still largely in Al Nusra’s hands – enabled Syria and Iran to focus on fighting the “Islamic State” in the South.
A perfect move.
Later, after the first returns to the base of the Russian soldiers operating in Syria, while the Russian Aerospace Forces and many Special Forces return, the Russian contractors will remain on the ground to protect the pipelines, even though the Russian law forbids a federal citizen to set up a “private war” group.
It will be the classic substitution typical of contemporary warfare: the “regular” soldiers leave and the contractors arrive.
Now the negotiations for Syria’s reconstruction begin and we will follow them with particular interest.
Israel and Turkey in search of solutions
Twelve and eleven years have elapsed since the Davos and Mavi Marmara incidents, respectively, and Turkey-Israel relations are undergoing intense recovery efforts. They are two important Eastern neighbours and influence regional stability.
Currently, as in the past, relations between the two countries have a structure based on realpolitik, thus pursuing a relationship of balance/interest, and hinge around the Palestinian issue and Israel’s position as the White House’s privileged counterpart. However, let us now briefly summarise the history of Turkish-Jewish relations.
The first important event that comes to mind when mentioning Jews and Turks is that when over 200,000 Jews were expelled by the Spanish Inquisition in 1491, the Ottoman Empire invited them to settle in its territory.
Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognise Israel in 1949. Israel’s first diplomatic Mission to Turkey was opened on January 7, 1950 but, following the Suez crisis in 1956, relations were reduced to the level of chargé d’affaires. In the second Arab-Israeli war of 1967, Turkey chose not to get involved and it did not allow relations to break off completely.
The 1990s saw a positive trend and development in terms of bilateral relations. After the second Gulf War in 1991 -which, as you may recall, followed the first Iraqi one of 1980-1988 in which the whole world was against Iran (with the only exception of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Syria, Libya and the moral support of Enver Hoxha’s Albania) – Turkey was at the centre of security policy in the region. In that context, Turkey-Israel relations were seriously rekindled.
In 1993, Turkey upgraded diplomatic relations with Israel to ambassadorial level. The signing of the Oslo Accords between Palestine and Israel led to closer relations. The 1996 military cooperation agreement was signed between the two countries in the fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, which provided significant logistical and intelligence support to both sides.
In the 2000s, there was a further rapprochement with Israel, due to the “zero problems with neighbours” policy promoted by Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party. I still remember issue No. 3/1999 of the Italian review of geopolitics “Limes” entitled “Turkey-Israel, the New Alliance”.
In 2002, an Israeli company undertook the project of modernising twelve M-60 tanks belonging to the Turkish armed forces. In 2004, Turkey agreed to sell water to Israel from the Manavgat River.
Prime Minister Erdoğan’s visit to Israel in 2005 was a turning point in terms of mediation between Palestine and Israel and further advancement of bilateral relations. In 2007, Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas spoke at the Turkish Grand National Assembly one day apart. High-level visits from Israel continued.
On December 22, 2008, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert came to Ankara and met with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In that meeting, significant progress was made regarding Turkey’s mediation between Israel and Syria.
Apart from the aforementioned incidents, the deterioration of Turkish-Israeli relations occurred five days after the above stated meeting, i.e. Operation “Cast Lead” against Gaza on December 27, 2008. After that event, relations between the two sides were never the same as before.
Recently, however, statements of goodwill have been made by both countries to normalise political relations. In December 2020, President Erdoğan stated he wanted to improve relations with Israel and said: “It is not possible for us to accept Israel’s attitude towards the Palestinian territories. This is the point in which we differ from Israel – otherwise, our heart desires to improve our relations with it as well”.
In its relations with Israel, Turkey is posing the Palestinian issue as a condition. When we look at it from the opposite perspective, the Palestinian issue is a vital matter for Israel. It is therefore a severe obstacle to bilateral relations.
On the other hand, many regional issues such as Eastern Mediterranean, Syria and some security issues in the region require the cooperation of these two key countries. For this reason, it is clear that both sides wish at least to end the crisis, reduce rhetoric at leadership level and focus on cooperation and realpolitik areas.
In the coming months, efforts will certainly be made to strike a balance between these intentions and the conditions that make it necessary to restart bilateral relations with Israel on an equal footing. As improved relations with Israel will also positively influence Turkey’s relations with the United States.
Turkey seeks to avoid the USA and the EU imposing sanctions that could go so far as to increase anti-Western neo-Ottoman rhetoric, while improved relations with Israel could offer a positive outcome not only to avoid the aforementioned damage, but also to solve the Turkish issues related to Eastern Mediterranean, territorial waters, Libya and Syria. Turkey has no intention of backing down on such issues that it deems vital. Quite the reverse. It would like to convey positive messages at the level of talks and Summits.
Another important matter of friction between Turkey and Israel is the use of oil and gas in the Eastern Mediterranean reserves between Egypt, Israel, Greece and Cyprus (Nicosia).
This approach is excluding Turkey. The USA and the EU also strongly support the current situation (which we addressed in a previous article) for the additional reason that France has been included in the equation.
The alignment of forces and fronts in these maritime areas were also widely seen during the civil war in Libya, where Turkey, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, France, as well as other players such as Russia, Italy, etc. came into the picture.
Ultimately, a point of contact between Turkey and Israel is the mediation role that the former could play in relations between Iran and Israel, especially after the improvement of Turkish-Iranian relations.
Indeed, in the aftermath of the U.S. airstrike in Baghdad – which killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani on January 3, 2020 -the Turkish Foreign Minister stated that the U.S. action would increase insecurity and instability in the region. He also reported that Turkey was worried about rising tensions between the United States and Iran that could turn Iraq back into an area of conflict to the detriment of peace and stability in the region. There was also a condolence phone call from President Erdoğan to Iranian President Rouhani, urging him to avoid a conflictual escalation with the United States following the airstrike.
Consequently, it is in the Turkish President’s interest to maintain an open channel with Iran, so that he himself can soften the mutual tensions between Israel and Iran, and – in turn – Israeli diplomacy can influence President Biden’s choices, albeit less pro-Israel than Donald Trump’s.
Turkey is known to have many relationship problems with the United States – especially after the attempted coup of July 15-16, 2016 and including the aforementioned oil issue – and realises that only Israel can resolve the situation smoothly.
In fact, Israel-USA relations are not at their best as they were under President Trump. President Erdoğan seems to be unaware of this fact, but indeed the Turkish President knows that the only voice the White House can hear is Israel’s, and certainly not the voice of the Gulf monarchies, currently at odds with Turkey.
Israel keeps a low profile on the statements made by President Erdoğan with regard to the Palestinians- since it believes them to be consequential – as well as in relation to a series of clearly anti-Zionist attitudes of the Turkish people.
We are certain, however, that President Erdoğan’s declarations of openness and Israeli acquiescence will surely yield concrete results.
The 25-year China-Iran agreement
On March 27, 2021, a document entitled “Comprehensive Document of Iran-China Cooperation” was signed by Javad Zarif, Iran’s Foreign Minister, and his Chinese counterpart. The Iranian regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had previously called “the agreement between the presidents of Iran and China correct and wise.” However, the Iranian people have widely criticized it as entirely against their national interests. Iranian officials have not even publicized the document’s contents yet probably because it is highly contentious.
In 2019, excerpts from this document were revealed by the Economist Petroleum news site. The details included:
- China invests $460 billion in Iranian oil and transportation sectors. China will get its investment back from the sale of Iranian crude during the first five years.
- China buys Iranian petroleum products at least 32% cheaper.
- The Chinese can decide before other companies whether to participate in completing all or part of a petrochemical project.
- 50,000 Chinese security personnel will be deployed to protect Chinese projects in Iran.
- China has the right to delay the repayment of its debts for up to two years in exchange for Iranian products’ purchase.
- At least one Russian company will be allowed to participate in the Tabriz-Ankara gas pipeline design together with the Chinese operator.
- Every year, 110 senior Revolutionary Guards officers travel to China and Russia for military training. 110 Chinese and Russian advisers will be stationed in Iran to train Revolutionary Guards officers.
- Development of Iranian military equipment and facilities will be outsourced to China, and Chinese and Russian military aircraft and ships will operate the developed facilities.
Even some circles within the regime have criticized the agreement. The state-run Arman newspaper wrote, “China has a 25-year contract with Iran and is investing $460 billion in Iran. It is somewhat ambiguous. Presently, China is holding the money it owes us and blames it on the U.S. sanctions. How can we trust this country to invest $460 billion in Iran?”
Last year, Iran and China had the lowest trade in the previous 16 years, and according to statistics, by the end of 2020, the volume of trade between Iran and China was about $16 billion, which, including undocumented oil sales, still does not reach $20 billion.
Jalal Mirzaei, a former member of Iran’s parliament, said: “If in the future the tensions between Tehran and Washington are moderated, and we see the lifting of some of the sanctions, China can also provide the basis for implementing the provisions of this document, but if the situation continues like today, Beijing will not make any effort to implement the document, as it is essentially unable to take concrete action on the ground because of the sanctions.”
Iran is vital to China in two ways, through its geopolitical location and its geo-economic importance. China knows that it does not have enough natural resources and is currently having a hard time supplying them from Russia and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia supplies its energy needs from oil giant Aramco, half of which is owned by the United States. That is why China is looking for a safe alternative that the United States will not influence, and the only option is Iran. They may also have a two-pronged plan in Iran, which involves using Iran’s profitable market and making Iran into a lever of pressure against the United States for additional concessions.
The Iranian regime’s objectives
The deal could deepen China’s influence in the Middle East and undermine U.S. efforts to isolate the Iranian regime. While the international dispute over the Iranian regime’s nuclear program has not been resolved, it is unclear how much this agreement could be implemented. The regime intends to make it a bargaining chip in possible future nuclear negotiations. However, some of Iran’s top authorities believe that China and Russia cannot be trusted 100 percent.
Due to the sanctions, the regime has a tough time to continue providing financial support to its proxy militias in the region. The regime also faced two major domestic uprisings in 2017 and 2019. Khamenei’s regime survived the widespread uprisings by committing a massacre, killing 1,500 young protesters in the 2019 uprising alone, according to the Iranian opposition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) and later confirmed by the Iranian regime’s Interior Ministry officials. Now with the coronavirus pandemic, Khamenei has been able to delay another major uprising.
Iran’s economy is on the verge of collapse. Khamenei must bow to western countries’ demands regarding the nuclear issue, including an end to its regional interventions and its ballistic missile program. Khamenei will struggle to save his regime from s imminent uprisings and a deteriorating economy that will undoubtedly facilitate more protests by the army of the unemployed and the hungry at any moment.
Unlike the 2015 JCPOA, the Iranian regime in 2021 is in a much weaker position. In fact, by many accounts, it is the weakest in its 40-year history. By signing the recent Iran-China agreement and auctioning Iranian resources, Khamenei wants to pressure the United States to surrender and restore the 2015 JCPOA as quickly as possible. But in the end, this pivot will not counteract domestic pressures that target the regime’s very existence.
China-Arab Relations: From Silk to Friendship
China and the Arabs have a long and rich economic and cultural history, and this distinguished relationship still exists today, with a promising future. This bilateral relationship between the two nations is based on the principles of respect and non-interference in internal affairs or foreign policies. Therefore, China’s relationship with the Arabs as well as with other nations is unique and a model to be followed. If you meet a Chinese person, the first phrase will be “Alabo” or an Arab in Mandarin, and he/she will welcome you. The Chinese state’s dealings with its counterparts can be measured based on the model of this Chinese citizen. China deals with the Arabs on the basis of friendship and historical ties.
The history of Sino-Arab relations goes back to the Tang Dynasty, and these relations developed with the flourishing of trade between the two nations. Since China was famous for its high quality silk, this trade route was called the “Silk Road”. Baron Ferdinand Freiherr von Richthofen, better known in English as Baron von Richthofen, was a German traveller, geographer, and scientist. He is noted for coining the terms “Seidenstraße” and “Seidenstraßen” = “Silk Road” or “Silk Route” in 1877.
Chinese-Arab relations have developed in contemporary history. In 1930, China established official relations with the Arab Republic of Egypt and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. A library in China was named the “Fouad Islamic Library”, after the late Egyptian king, “Fuad the First”. In 1956, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser cut ties with China and established relations with the Communist People’s Republic of China and inaugurated an embassy in Egypt. In the same year, the Arab League established relations with the People’s Republic of China. By the year 1990, all Arab countries cut their relations with the Republic of China and established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China.
In 2004, the China-Arab Cooperation Forum was established, and today it is considered a milestone for the Sino-Arab relationship. At its inauguration, Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing delivered a speech stating:“The Arab world is an important force on the international scene, and that China and the Arab countries have enjoyed a long friendship. Our similar history, our common goals and our broad interests have been credited with enhancing cooperation between the two sides; no matter how the international situation changes, China has always been the sincere friend of the Arab world”. The China-Arab Cooperation Forum was officially established during the visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao to the headquarters of the League of Arab States in January of 2004.
Hu Jintao indicated at that time that the formation of the forum is a continuation of the traditional friendship between China and the Arab world. The Chinese president said at the time, “The establishment of the forum is conducive to expanding mutual cooperation in a variety of fields. He added that China had made four proposals; First, maintaining mutual respect, fair treatment and sincere cooperation at the political level. Second, strengthening economic and trade relations through cooperation in the fields of investment and trade, contracted projects, labor services, energy, transportation, communications, agriculture, environmental protection and information. Third, expand cultural exchanges. Finally, conducting training for the employees.”
During the second session of the forum in Beijing in 2006, China showed its sympathy for the issues of the Arab world and its interest in the peace process between Palestine and Israel, since China is a peace-loving country; it presented the idea of “a nuclear-free Middle East”. China is the best friend of the Arab countries today. Although some Arab countries have strong relations with the West whose policy does not match the Chinese policy, but all Arab countries agree on friendly and good relations with the People’s Republic of China.
The Arab citizen is not interested today in the foreign policy of the US, the deadly weapons of the US and Russia, or European culture, but rather the livelihood and economy, and this is what China provides through its wise economic policy. In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping launched the Belt and Road Initiative, or New Silk Road, which will restore glow to China-Arab relations; as the Arab world is in a strategic location on the initiative map. Thus, the Arab countries are an important partner for China in the initiative. Although the volume of trade exchanges between China and the Arab countries exceeded 200 billion US dollars, which increased 10 times over the past decade, there was no commercial and institutional arrangement to facilitate trade between the two sides.
China, as a peaceful and non-invasive country, aims to promote economic cooperation with Arab region on an equal basis because it considers the Arab world a historic partner. The historical experience of the Arabs with the Chinese through the Silk Road has confirmed that China differs from the nations of colonialism and imperialism, which consider the Arab region a place rich in natural resources only. In his historic speech at the Arab League, Chinese President Xi stressed that China will not seek to extend influence and search for proxies in the Middle East. The Chinese initiatives will contribute to establishing security and stability through economic development and improving the people’s livelihood, in line with the post-2015 development agenda and the aspirations of the Arab people for a better life, as the Chinese experience proves that development is the key to digging out the roots of conflicts and extremism in all its forms.
China is a neutral country and does not favor the use of violence. During the Syrian crisis, for example, the Chinese envoy to the Security Council raised his hand three times, meaning that China, with its wise diplomacy, supported the Syrian regime without entering the military war. During the recent Chinese military parade, Chinese President Xi Jinping revealed some Chinese military capabilities and thus sent a message to the enemies that China will always be ready if a war is imposed on it, and a message of support to China’s allies. The Arab region today needs a real partner who possesses economic and military power and international political influence, such as China; to ensure the success of the Belt and Road Initiative, and to consolidate the China-Arab relations and raise it to the level of a strategic alliance.
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