Authors: Anton Mardasov* & Kirill Semenov
2017 marked a turning point in the Syrian conflict. With the full support of Russia and Iran, the Bashar al-Assad regime was able to neutralize the “domestic threat” completely. Throughout 2017, Damascus used the situation to carry out “outlying” operations, manipulating the ceasefire agreements and other accords reached as part of the Astana Peace Process. As soon as a relative calm would settle in a given “de-escalation zone” [in the opinion of the present authors, quotation marks are necessary in this case, as they indicate the real nature of these four zones], the regime would start transferring the available forces to other areas. First to eastern Syria in order to break the blockade of Deir ez-Zor and establish control over adjacent areas, which undoubtedly accelerated the downfall of the “Caliphate,” then to Idlib Governorate. And then, taking advantage of the agreements reached between Russia and Turkey on the division of spheres of influence in this “de-escalation zone,” to East Ghouta. Now Damascus has the initiative in terms of launching an offensive and a significant advantage over opposition groups.
The State of Affairs
As early as the beginning of 2017, the Syrian opposition demonstrated its ability to consolidate efforts and respond to the regime’s offensive manoeuvres. One such example is the way it managed to reduce “tension” in East Ghouta by carrying out distracting operations of its own in Daraa and Hama. However, the Syrian opposition became irreversibly fragmented after the process to form the de-escalation zones began, accompanied by the establishment of an external protectorate over these zones. As a result, most of the opposition factions in Greater Idlib now operate exclusively in the interests of Turkey, and the Amman Agreement between Jordan, Russia and the United States regarding the southwest de-escalation zone has succeeded in taking the Free Syrian Army’s Southern Front out of the game. External actors have played a decisive role in the outcome of the confrontation between Damascus and the internal opposition, cutting off aid to opposition factions and effectively splitting them into isolated fragments.
That being said, until February 2018 (when the Russia–Turkey agreement made it possible to wrap up the active operation in Idlib and focus forces on East Ghouta), all the efforts of the elite units of the 4th Armoured Division, as well as the Syrian Republican Guard and other regular units of the Syrian Arab Army, to repel opposition forces in East Ghouta’s Jobar and Ayn Tarma ended with the withdrawal of government-sponsored troops after significant losses. The operation in Harasta ended with the encirclement of a Republican Guard battalion and the deaths of five colonels and brigadier generals. The same thing happened during an operation in Daraa in the south of the country.
Despite the active support of the Russian Aerospace Forces, the Syrian Special Forces and the Shiite “Expeditionary Corps” led by Lebanon’s Hezbollah and various Iraqi factions, the government forces still suffered significant strikes from the heavily outnumbered Islamic State. One such event took place in Homs and Deir ez-Zor in September–October 2017, when Islamic State units managed to cut off almost all the supply routes to pro-Assad troops operating along the Euphrates. The only thing that prevented the terrorists from building on their successes was the lack of numbers on the part of Islamic State (very few detachments are left) and the haphazard band-aid approach adopted by Russian specialists on the issue.
Thus, Damascus’ victories over its opponents can, for the most part, be put down to favourable circumstances and external support, rather than to the regime’s strengthening of its forces or increasing its combat effectiveness, despite the great efforts Russia has expended to train Syria’s military personnel and provide its regular units with up-to-date military technology.
Counting on the fact that these manipulations have successfully paralyzed the opposition to the point that pro-government forces will now be able to deal with current challenges does not eliminate the need to have a national military structure – without the growing Shiite International.
At present, the armed forces that Bashar al-Assad relies on continue to be an assortment of groupings, all of which depend on Damascus to varying degrees. There is no unity within the army in terms of readiness to unquestioningly carry out the directives of its leadership. There is a complicated system of approvals for the use of “elite” sections of the Syrian Arab Army in specific operations. This even applies to its most elite components: the 4th Armoured Division, the Syrian Republican Guard, Suheil al-Hassan’s “Tiger Forces” and individual units of other sections – for example, the “Deir Al-Qalamoun” unit of the 3rd Armoured Division and the “Saif Al-Mahdi” unit of the 4th Armoured Division, among others. At the same time, the combat effectiveness of the Syrian Arab Army’s combat manoeuvre units leaves much to be desired, and attempts are made to avoid moving them to regions far away from their areas of permanent deployment.
Various paramilitary groupings that do not answer directly to the Syrian Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Internal Affairs or the state security organs continue to play an important role, including the so-called National Defence Forces, the Local Defence Forces, foreign (primarily Shiite) groups, and other units created by them in Syrian territory, made up of Syrian nationals. There are at least twice as many fighters in the irregular army formations as in the Syrian Arab Army itself.
The Syrian crisis has made it possible for political institutions to acquire their own military formations. The Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party still has active squadrons, some of which are part of the 5th Corps. Eagles of the Whirlwind is the military wing of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. And the Syrian Resistance is a left-wing paramilitary group led by Mihrac Ural, who is considered a terrorist in Turkey.
The formation of various paramilitary structures – military wings of mafia-like clans, private military companies, regional and tribal militias and militarized political organizations – has undermined the stability of the regime. These forces do not simply support Damascus. From the very beginning, they have attempted take root in government institutions and/or take control of various sources of income. It is no secret that various Shabiha detachments currently operating under the aegis of the National Defence Forces control the checkpoints, which in practice means that they have access to corrupt schemes, including the opportunity to send radical opposition fighters into the Turkish zones of influence. A number of figures associated with the pro-Iranian Syrian group Liwa al-Baqir (the Baqir Brigade, part of the Local Defence Forces) have their own fleet of minibuses and continue to operate transport businesses.
Given that Damascus is in dire need of local groupings in order to maintain stability and security, these militias will probably continue to exist after victory is declared. All the more given that all armed militia groups were legalized in 2013 and given permission to carry out their “activities” by the Ministry of Interior.
The incorporation of the National and Local Defence Forces into state structures was predetermined by the fact that both the Syrian special services and the army were unprepared for an uprising, and the vacuum thus created was filled by paramilitary groups. Iran also took advantage of this by helping set up various paramilitary structures and thus establishing a multi-echeloned presence in Syria.
Worthy of separate note is the Fifth Corps of Volunteers, an autonomous military structure that was created with the direct participation of Russian military advisers. According to some reports, the corps itself is also led by Russian generals. The corps can hardly be regarded as a regular military formation. It consists of various subdivisions made up of volunteers and is financed by a number of non-government sources. It also contains certain pro-government Syrian forces that existed before the corps was set up, including those financed by private individuals (the “Sea Commandos”) or set up with the participation of Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah (Liwa Dir’ al-Watan). At the same time, the inclusion of defectors and objectors from among the Sunni population in the Fifth Corps was apparently supposed to break the stereotype about the sectarian foundation of the pro-government forces and the auxiliary nature of the Sunnis’ participation in the war. However, the experiment has yet to bear fruit. The most combat-ready units of the Fifth Corps – the so-called ISIS Hunters – are again “sectarian militias” (as far as Syria’s Sunni majority is concerned). Such groups are made up primarily of Syrian Christians and Alawites (for example, the aforementioned “Sea Commandos”) or Shiites (Liwa Dir’ al-Watan, with the participation of Lebanese fighters). Work of this kind is likely to continue: according to some reports, work on the establishment of a 6th Corps is already under way.
Sooner or later the Syrian armed forces will surely face the challenge of transition to a peaceful life. In this context, it is important to understand what will happen to the large number of paramilitary formations and militias. The Iraqi leadership is attempting to solve this very same problem at home, having initiated a procedure to integrate soldiers of the militia group “Khashd ash-Shaabi” into the country’s armed forces. The experience gained during the creation of the 5th Corps, as well as its predecessor (the 4th Corps) can be used to help integrate certain paramilitary structures into the Syrian Arab Army and the Ministry of Interior.
It is also possible at the initial stage to revive the three corps of the Syrian Arab Army that formally existed before, turning them into territorial commands. All the regular and paramilitary units could be placed under their control on a territorial basis, thus becoming parts of the regular forces, identified by numbers instead of names. This is a necessary step, because many of these structures simply refuse to dissolve themselves, as in the case in Iraq. However, their existence should be legalized and their activities brought into line with military regulations.
Another problem is how to overcome the increasingly “sectarian” nature of military forces in Syria. All or most of the combat-ready units are made up primarily of national and religious minorities. Sunnis play a secondary role, mainly serving in auxiliary, “second echelon” groupings. Attracting Sunnis who have fought or lived in opposition territories, earning their trust and ensuring that they carry out their duties in a diligent manner will also be a key issue.
A Necessary but Unrealistic Scenario
If we distance ourselves from the propaganda and frankly dilettantish stereotypes about the Syrian opposition, then the best option for establishing an ethnic and confessional balance would be to unite the opposition groups and pro-government forces into a single structure. This is the kind of renewal of the armed forces that the UN documents envision. It is hardly possible, for example, to incorporate the insurgent factions that have, with Turkey’s support, united to form the Syrian National Army (SNA, which operates exclusively in Northern Aleppo) into existing Syrian Arab Army units and divisions. The leadership of the opposition factions will not agree to this, bearing in mind what happened in Tajikistan (where the opposition was liquidated after its divisions were incorporated into government units). One possibility is to form about five to seven separate corps and divisional units from opposition forces and establish a single military council involving the Syrian National Army and the Syrian Arab Army.
However, neither Damascus nor Tehran, nor indeed Moscow, is interested in such a scenario. Although it is far easier for the Russian side to play along with the Syrian regime, which seeks to eliminate the Syrian opposition once and for all by military means, that goal would serve only to strengthen the positions of Iran and Syria. Moscow has had a significantly more difficult time than expected positioning itself as a moderator in the conflict and maintaining effective working relations with the opposition groups that participated in the Astana Peace Process and signed agreements with the Russian military in Cairo and Geneva. Integrating the opposition into military and political structures that are aligned with the current regime could serve as a natural counterweight to the influence of Iran and preserve a certain balance of power that is beneficial to Moscow. The big question now is: to what extent will Moscow be able to maintain control over its “client,” given that Tehran is clearly benefitting from the situation?
Reform of the Military Intelligence Services
Against the backdrop of the Islamic State’s transition to clandestine activities in Iraq and Syria (which is common for the group) and various other challenges, the role of the Syrian intelligence services is acquiring greater significance. Their activities today little resemble the standards adopted in the sphere. Opportunities to carry out covert intelligence work have been greatly reduced, and the grassroots tools of state governance have been destroyed. The Syrian intelligence services were not even able to prevent terrorist attacks on the National Security Council building.
At present, the Syrian intelligence services do not seem to have an analogue anywhere in the Middle East. Four independent security structures operate within the Syrian Arab Army. These structures are divided into “military,” which includes military intelligence and aerial reconnaissance (Air Force reconnaissance) and “political” (civilian units formally subordinate to the Interior Ministry), which includes the main security department and the department for managing political security. All of these structures answer directly to the president. However, the system of intelligence services in Syria reflects the complexity of relations and confrontations among various groups of influence in the country’s ruling elite. The system is constructed in such a way that the individual intelligence services effectively work against each other, which makes it impossible for any single “branch” to become significantly stronger than the others.
Air Force reconnaissance was conceived as the intelligence structure “closest” to the heart of former president Hafez al-Assad, who was a fighter pilot himself. As a result, it effectively turned into an independent state security agency, with its own external intelligence and counterintelligence divisions, and even a department for combatting anti-government activities. During the Civil War, the Air Force reconnaissance formed an entire “pleiad” of special forces units to carry out operations using heavy machinery. The other three “branches” took similar steps in order to prevent any one of the intelligence agencies from becoming significantly stronger than the rest.
It would appear that the simplest solution for transforming the Syrian intelligence services with the goal of optimizing their activities would, first of all, be to merge Air Force reconnaissance and military intelligence into a single organ of the General Staff of the Syrian Arab Army, and strip these structures of the ability to carry out political investigations. As for the political security structures, it would be practical for one of them to focus exclusively on external intelligence activities, while the second could be engaged in counterintelligence and anti-terror activities. In other words, Syrian intelligence services would be brought up to global standards.
It is also imperative to create border security forces to control Syria’s eastern frontiers first and foremost, but also the entire border, as a kind of unified system with its own social and infrastructural characteristics. While Hafez al-Assad paid special attention to the country’s tribes, granting their leaders various privileges and taking their views into consideration in political life, his son Bashar all but forgot about them, which combined with drought in the regions and the misallocation of resources created the conditions for social upheaval. The years spent under the control of radical groups transformed the tribal social fabric even more. At present, the regime relies primarily on the Suqur al-Furat militia, which contains members of the Al-Shaitat tribe, to carry out its activities in the eastern part of the country. The tribe attempted a revolt against the Islamic State rule in 2014 but was defeated in a gruesome fashion. Damascus used this as a pretext to organize a military training programme for the tribe’s members and announced an amnesty for them.
If Damascus is unable to hold a constructive dialogue with the Sunni tribes, then there is a risk that the Islamic State will emerge once again in one form or another as a result of the joint efforts of independent Sunni groups and radicals (operatives, preachers, etc.), who will be able to remain in the country. It is all the more important to deal with the cadres who are familiar with the local terrain in the east of the country could help prevent smuggling, with which both Damascus and Baghdad have well-documented issues.
*Anton Mardasov, Military Observer Head of the Department of Middle Eastern Conflicts at the Institute of Innovative Development
First published in our partner RIAC
The China/Russia Space Threat: Is Star Wars Far Away or On the Horizon?
In world politics, using force, blatantly offensive force in particular, rarely comes without costs.–Gil Merom
Space – The Final Frontier?
The space race from the 1950s until the end of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States eventually ended in a tie. Maybe not totally a tie, but the advent of the International Space Station (ISS) and the amount of training performed at Star City just outside of Moscow by both Russians and Americans in preparation for their missions give the appearance that the former rivalry is now a cooperative event. Over the last few years, space is becoming the focus of many nations from a security perspective. Merom’s succinct summation of the cost of using offensive force is a driving reason for the new focus on space either from the standpoint of dominance or of countering other nations’ use of it.This time, instead of claiming dominance by planting a flag on the moon, the idea of controlling a domain that is still not truly understood provides a level of security impacting many areas, like the Global Positioning System (GPS), Positioning, Navigating, and Timing (PNT), and Satellite Communication (SATCOM) (Harrison et al. 2018; Weeden and Sampson 2018). And it is China and Russia that are currently leading the charge of attempting to operationalize and weaponize space to project power.
Countering the threat of the United States is a purpose both China and Russia cite as a reason to develop space and counterspace capabilities, but that is almost the default/de facto motive for any action they take. Achieving space superiority is not on par with becoming a nuclear power in terms of international recognition, but China and Russia both see gaining the upper hand in space as a way to set their nations apart from the rest of the international community. China recently declared space as a military domain. That allows China to expand its military doctrine “that the goal of space warfare and operations is to achieve space superiority using offensive and defensive means in connection with their broader strategic focus on asymmetric cost imposition, access denial, and information dominance.”( Weeden and Sampson 2018, xi). Based off of this statement, the Chinese view space as another avenue to project military power. And space, like cyberspace, is much harder to counter due to the difficulty in attribution.
Russia’s efforts to regain counterspace capability also provides a method for projecting power and is another area to show that they are back as players on the world stage. President Putin laid out four ideas for a 21st century Russia, “(1) the strong, functioning state; (2) the state-guided market economy; (3) the welfare state with attendant safety net; and (4) the state-safeguarded foreign and security policy position that provides Russia a Eurasian – and even global – leadership position.” (Willerton 2017, 211) Pursuing a program of space and counterspace options ties directly into the first and fourth idea presented by the President and could tie into the second and third if Russia is able to export technology or intellectual capital to assist other nations. The Russian perspective sees “modern warfare as a struggle over information dominance and net centric operations that can often take place in domains without clear boundaries and contiguous operating areas.” (Weeden and Sampson 2018, xii) Space falls within this definition so, if by leveraging space to conduct cyberspace or space-enabled information operations, then that provides an even larger platform that Russian targets must defend. After all, Russia has “extensive operational experience from decades of spaces operations.” (Harrison et al. 2018, 13) Although some areas of the Russian space program have atrophied since the end of the Cold War, Russia and the U.S. have maintained a partnership with civil space missions to the ISS. (Harrison et al. 2018, 13)
GPS, PNT, and SATCOM
Most nations widely use GPS and PNT for navigation and the geo-tagging of locations for official and unofficial uses. For China, GPS is how Japan maintains situational awareness in the East China Sea. (Horowitz et al. 2016, 30) If China were able to achieve control over GPS satellites, the advantage it would have over other nations would be hard to quantify. Aside from blinding or manipulating what the Japanese see in the East China Sea, commercial and military pilots rely on GPS, as do many other peoples for navigation via ships, cars or phones. Unmanned Aerial Systems, or drones, are also dependent on GPS, and many military operations use drones for communication relays. If China or Russia manipulated or jammed the link between a ground control station and the drone, then the drone could pose a threat to any airplanes or helicopters in the area. If a weaponized drone, then that capability could be used against unauthorized targets (a rogue drone) or cause chaos due to the lack of communications.
A vast majority of communications today are done by SATCOM. To control or have the ability to deny, degrade, disrupt, destroy, or manipulate any combination of GPS, PNT, and SATCOM gives a nation a huge benefit and should be cause for concern by all. Most systems were built and launched into orbit before cybersecurity became an issue. The distance from Earth to the satellites’ respective orbits provided an inherent level of assumed security, so many measures that are standard on systems today are not on satellites currently in use. Knowing the exact amount of cyber-attacks on satellites or their ground stations is unlikely as the number is either classified or nations and companies are unwilling to admit they were victims publicly. What is known is that both China and Russia are capable, competent cyber and signals intelligence(SIGINT) actors and attacks of this nature are not beyond their abilities.
A 2014 Crowd strike report linked the “People’s Liberation Army General Staff Department Third Department 12th Bureau Unit 61486 – that subset of what is ‘generally acknowledged to be China’s premiere SIGINT collection and analysis agency’ dedicated specifically to ‘supporting China’s space surveillance network.’” (Weeden and Sampson 2018, 7-7) That level of attribution is impressive in such a nebulous environment. Although not an official attribution by the United States Government, Crowd strike and other commercial threat intelligence providers’ identification and designation of threat actors are generally universally accepted as accurate.
A Russian Criminal syndicate, known as Turla, exploited satellite links to hack other targets according to Kaspersky Labs. (Weeden and Sampson 2018, 7-7) The Russian Government can claim Turla was a criminal act and not supported by Russia, but in 1998 Russian hijackers gained “control of a U.S. – German ROSAT deep-space monitoring satellite, then issued commands for it to rotate toward the sun, frying its optics and rendering it useless.”(Weeden and Sampson 2018, 7-8) These few examples demonstrate China and Russia maintain both the intent and capability to conduct operations in space.
Both China and Russia are “developing the ability to interdict satellites both from the ground standpoint and from the space standpoint” according to the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. (Tucker 2018) The idea of weaponizing space is enticing and terrorizing. For those nations that are able to develop and deploy technology to disrupt other satellites, a huge advantage exists. Iran, India, and Israel are among other nations seeking to develop a space or counterspace program. (Harrison et al. 2018; Weeden and Sampson 2018) None of these nations, however, is at the level of the space/counterspace programs of China, Russia, or the United States. Nor are they likely to refocus the bulk of their economies and militaries to concentrate solely on space. Much like the alliances developed as nuclear powers emerged, nations that desire space superiority or, simply wishing that the United States not be the dominant space power, may put their efforts toward aligning with a power they feel they can benefit from, even if other strategic objectives do not necessarily align. The threat presented by space does not produce the mass panic that nuclear war does, but when considering that space is the domain where missiles and communications could be jammed or re-directed resulting in an inadvertent nuclear crisis, the legitimacy and severity of threats from space become apparent.
China and Russia launched a 200 million dollar venture in 2015 whose purpose was to innovate technologies. (Harrison et al. 2018, 6) In July 2018, China sent a delegation to Russia to explore potentially building a jointly-run station based on Russian knowledge in an area China is deficient. (Russia, China 2018) Interestingly, in 2013, the European Space Agency considered making China its primary space partner, instead of the United States, “as China’s global ‘rising power’ status now extends to space.” (Johnson-Freese 2015, 91)
China’s messaging that it is serious about becoming a space power resonates with other nations and they appear ready to broker the relationships needed to achieve the goal. Russia has the technical knowledge and perhaps the upper hand in that it is a key partner on the ISS with several other nations, including the United States. If Russia and China continue with either joint ventures or Russia supplying China with expertise, it is unknown how the United States will react, since it vehemently opposes China’s inclusion on the ISS. (Johnson-Freese 2015, 95) In February 2018, the United States Director of National Intelligence identified “Russia and China as continuing to launch ‘experimental’ satellites that conduct sophisticated on-orbit activities, at least some of which are intended to advance counterspace capabilities …some technologies with peaceful applications—such as satellite inspection, refueling, and repair—can also be used against adversary spacecraft.” (Tucker 2018) The issue is on the United States radar at a high enough level that the threats presented by China and Russia were included in the 2018 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community from the Director of National Intelligence. (Coats 2018, 13) To what extent the United States will go to deter either China or Russia in space is still unknown at this time, however.
The United Nations maintains an Office for Outer Space Affairs that, among other roles, assists with space law “associated with the rules, principles, and standards of international law appearing in the five international treaties and five sets of principles governing outer space, which have been developed under the auspices of the United Nations.” (United Nations 2018) In addition to the space laws adjudicated by the United Nations, individual states have their own laws regarding the use of space. China and Russia are among those that develop national space laws. China’s 2015 National Security Law made China’s defense of interests in space legally binding and a white paper in that same year stated, “threats from such new security domains as outer space and cyberspace will be dealt with to maintain the common security of the world community.” (Weeden and Sampson 2018, 1-20). Russian National space laws listed on the United Nations website include areas covering space activity, management structure, licensing space operations, Russian Space Agency regulations, and an agreement between the Russian Federation and Cabinet Ministers of Ukraine about technical safeguards on the use of outer space. (United Nations 2018) The bulk of the Russian laws listed were written in the 1990s, with the exception of the Ukrainian agreement which is dated 2009. So, the possibility exists that these laws do not represent what the Russian Federation follows today as a national space law.
One area under that is a potential loophole for any nation is the dual-use nature of most satellites. Unless a country scrutinizes a satellite before launching it into orbit, determining the use is strictly for a defensive or offensive purpose is difficult to prove. Again, the tyranny of distance comes into play trying to establish the true nature of space-related activities. Intelligence collection methods possibly can gather the required information to identify a weapons system or counter-weapons system on a satellite schematic, but for a communications, GPS, or PNT satellite, proving its ultimate use for something more than just supporting commercial or regular military communications and navigation services is not so easy.
International and national laws are in place to ensure the freedom and safety of space for all nations. But those laws only help nations that can afford to operate in space to a certain extent. As China and Russia expand their independent efforts at becoming dominant nations in space, where Chinese-Russian joint ventures go is worth watching. How far these two nations are willing to collaborate and even become true partners in space will have lasting consequences on how other countries will or can react. The space threat is real even if it is difficult to quantify based on it being mostly an amorphous threat today. That does not mean nations are not trying to exploit seemingly ambiguous space as a domain for their own national advantages. Thus, there is no excuse for international organizations like the United Nations to be caught unaware if sometime in the near future a major power shows it has successfully turned space into a domain for waging war or projecting power.
Latin Intelligence Broadly Defined: Security and Corruption in South America
Many Central and South American countries currently experience serious threats to their internal and external security. Three, in particular, Honduras, Venezuela and Colombia, are infected with two specific threats that cut across the division between domestic and foreign: 1)Transnational organized crime to include drug, weapon and human trafficking and 2) Terrorism. Each of the three countries in question have slightly different political structures which affect how their military and intelligence services are organized and operate. The actual political leanings within each state government ranges from Honduras’ rightwing and center-right Liberals, to Venezuela’s move towards socialism, to Colombia’s evolution to social liberalism. The political leanings are important because they go to the heart of policy and decision-making within the country and affect how both the military and intelligence communities deal with threats and issues. The two threats identified have the potential to create political instability within each of the three countries. How each country deals with the threats has a lot to do with the utility and effectiveness and their respective intelligence organizations.
This Central American state, “long one of the poorest countries in Latin America, is now also among the most violent and crime-ridden.” The violence emanates from organized criminal enterprises using street gangs, transnational syndicates, and even corrupt security forces. Over the last twenty years Honduras has become a strategic transit hub for the exportation of drugs, weapons, and humans to the United States and elsewhere. Since the 2009 coup that ousted President Manuel Zelaya, the situation has only gotten worse. From a law enforcement perspective, a lack of capacity, transparency, and corruption cripple the judiciary from acting in the best interests of the state. The Honduran policing system is known throughout Latin America as one of the more corrupt. Even the military has not completely evaded the label of corruption, but this is the one organization that the central government has turned to time and again as it attempts to deal with the growing problems associated with organized crime and gangs like the MS13 and Barrio 18. The recent Presidential election turmoil has only added to the problem since critical monetary aid from Western nations, especially the United States, has been coopted in lieu of a resolution. Much of the anticipated funding was targeted at fighting crime.
At first blush, of all the problems and threats that Honduras is exposed to, it would seem terrorism is not one of them. But if the internal violence perpetrated by street gangs is relabeled, then the threat of domestic terrorism begins to skyrocket. These gangs have an agenda that supports organized crime, promotes violence against specific and non-specific random targets for both political and non-political reasons. Putting too many filters on the labeling can easily reduce this problem to a policing issue and, in the process, overlook the damage being done to the political, economic, and social structures of the state. If this is not terrorism, then terrorism has been lost to political analysis.
To deal with the corruption, “in early 2016, Honduras created a police purge commission following revelations that high-ranking members of the police had participated in the 2009 murder of a Honduras’ anti-drug czar.” After careful records review, hundreds of high-ranking officials and thousands of police were removed. The Honduran intelligence agency is embedded and comes under the direct control of the military, so they are routinely called upon to provide real-time intelligence on the activities of crime families and the movements of street gangs. Since the coup of 2009, the Honduran intelligence service has been both militarized and politicized. The state has continued to militarize the battle against organized crime and terrorism granting the military policing powers, including arrest. In 2013, the state created and deployed an elite military police unit for the purpose of dealing directly with such threats and preserving the internal security of the state. These decisions have not been without controversy.
When the military essentially controls policing and the intelligence community operates essentially unchecked, there are going to be serious issues that arise concerning civil liberties and human rights. Because the military and intelligence services operate in lock step, abuses perpetrated by the military are often the result of intelligence initiatives designed to contain, isolate, or eliminate not only threats to the state but threats to their power bases. With a weakened justice system, the intelligence community supports activities that result in the arrest and detainment of political opposition and dissidents as well as primary targets within organized crime and street gangs. The implied threat to political enemies is not lost in translation. The intelligence community was seriously involved in the extrajudicial execution of organized crime leadership and heads of violent gangs after the 2009 coup. This was a way of short-circuiting the judicial process and sending a clear political message to adversaries about internal control.
“Venezuela is a key transit country for drug shipments leaving Colombia for the United States and Europe.” The country’s poor rule of law and internal corruption have acted as a magnet for foreign entities, primarily Colombians, to control a lucrative drug trade. Since 2005, there is a growing body of evidence that elements of the Venezuelan security forces, including the intelligence community, are getting in on the action. The Cartel de los Soles is a loose network of police, military, and intelligence officials cashing in their influence for a healthy cut of the drug profits.
Not unlike Honduras, the threats of organized crime and terrorism are tearing at the fabric of social order and political control in Venezuela. Additionally, many Venezuelan cities are overrun with street crime and urban gang warfare that terrorizes the general population, creates an insecure and hostile living environment, and seeks through intimidation and murder to control local political power structures. But another element of domestic terrorism exists in Venezuela: violent actions carried out by political opposition against the ruling elites and government. Over the last decade, hundreds of people have been killed, property destroyed, and internal security threatened. Venezuela has one of the highest murder rates on the planet. This form of domestic terrorism creates major policing issues that drive the federal government to take extraordinary measures, including the use of military forces to maintain order and localized control. The Venezuelan intelligence service is key to these military and paramilitary operations.
The Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN) is the premier intelligence agency in Venezuela. “Created primarily as an internal security force, it reports directly to the Vice President of Venezuela.” The Organization of American States has described SEBIN as the politically-controlled police force of the Bolivarian government. SEBIN has long been compared to Israel’s Mossad in terms of tactics and operational effectiveness. Unlike Mossad, SEBIN can also be a force that utilizes its power for self-aggrandizement and corruption. When carrying out its primary function of providing for state security, “SEBIN has an extensive record of human rights violations that include torture against ‘enemies of the state,’ whether they be domestic or foreign.” SEBIN even acted as a base of operations for the American CIA in its own efforts against a post-revolutionary Cuba. Working closely with the CIA, SEBIN is accused of doing their dirty work including the torture and murder of political opponents. Thus, SEBIN is an effective political tool to deal with organized crime and domestic terrorism, including continuous sweeps for possible threats to the regime. To accomplish this mission, SEBIN has erected one of the most extensive surveillance programs in the world.
Former SEBIN operatives and other internal security experts have gone on record to say that the Venezuelan government has spared no expense in putting together a formidable domestic surveillance system using Russian and Italian technology. The information collected by SEBIN is used to build a huge database in which profiles of “people of interest” are created either for immediate action, continued monitoring, or “watch listing”. The tools are especially useful against organized crime that uses modern communications and computer-based technologies to foster their own illicit business operations. In short, SEBIN is the militarized, politicized arm of the federal government. The agency has been weaponized to deal directly with organized crime and terrorist-related activities within the country, unfortunately including political opposition.
“After more than half a century of civil war and the rise and fall of drug trafficking empires, Colombia has made huge strides in improving its security situation in recent years.” But, not unlike its neighbors, Honduras and Venezuela, Colombia is also beset by organized crime and forms of domestic terrorism fomented by guerrilla rebels. The Colombian underworld is a strange mixture of old crime organizations that espouse their own political ideologies along with newer criminal enterprises that have openly declared war on the federal government. The scope of criminal activity is common to the entire region and includes drugs, weapons, money laundering, human trafficking, extortion, and even illicit mining operations. Combating these threats is the job of the Colombian intelligence agency, which can be divided into a pre- and post-2011 history. The roles, missions, authority, and powers of the agency are linked to these two periods of time.Again, not unlike Honduras and Venezuela, Colombia’s intelligence service had its darker days in terms of corruption and close ties to organized crime.
“The Administrative Department of Security (Spanish: Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad, DAS) was the Security Service agency of Colombia, which was also responsible for border and immigration services. It was dissolved on 31 October 2011 as part of a wider Executive Reform andthe leadership was replaced by the Dirección Nacional de Inteligencia (DNI).” DAS was initially chartered to work internal security issues for state and local governments. It was the largest civil secret service in Colombia. With an annual budget of over $100M and more than 5,000 field agents, DAS produced strategic and operational intelligence for federal decision-makers. Additional duties included providing judiciary police investigative services, as well as acting as the nation’s premier counterintelligence service responsible for both domestic and foreign threats to national security. DAS was even responsible for the control of immigration, including handling visas. Interested in stronger relations with the United States, DAS worked with the Drug Enforcement Agency to corroborate many of its policy positions. But what now seems to be a common element for Latin intelligence agencies, elements of DAS were double-dealing and lining their own pockets in the process.
“In late 2011, President Juan Manuel Santos announced that DAS was to be replaced by a new agency,” the national intelligence agency (ANIC, in Spanish). This time around, the sole purpose of ANIC was simply to gather intelligence on domestic and foreign threats. Interface of ANIC with the military was designed to be a rare occurrence, except in extreme situations where national security was directly threatened, as determined by the federal government. The terrorism associated with guerrilla rebels apparently rises to that level. Political supporters of those FARC guerrillas are considered legitimate targets. ANIC has supported police and military operations aimed at eliminating these political opponents.
“Colombia distinguishes itself from the majority of the rest of the countries of the region because it has not suffered prolonged military governments or democracy interruptions.” Lacking this string of transition periods, the government has been able to keep a close hold on its intelligence agency and the data collected and analyzed. The government has been successful at keeping the intelligence community focused on government-required intelligence issues, lessening the chance that the agency will begin to chart its own course and drift towards graft and corruption in the process. ANIC does its work and there have been few scandals associated with the agency. In short, it “respects democracy and the rule of law” and thus stands out compared to the previous two cases.
Honduras, Venezuela and Colombia: A Comparative Intelligence Snapshot
The intelligence agencies of Honduras, Venezuela and Colombia are non-Western in design and function. Because of the historical, social, and political unrest evident in each, the intelligence services were established to provide internal security primarily in support of government preservation and continuity. Human rights and civil liberties came at a premium and were not a top priority given the threats supposedly posed by organized crime and domestic terrorism imposed by violent street gangs and political opposition entities. This aspect separates them from Western counterparts, as these three Latin ICs do not really distinguish between internal and external security threats. In many ways they see them as an integrated and holistic threat picture, since many of the internal threats have financial and material support beyond national borders, such is the nature of transnational organized crime. Of the three, the Colombian intelligence agency is more normalized in terms of its recognition and approval by Western powers, most especially the United States. Venezuela finds itself on the other side of that political-intelligence approval spectrum. Recently, the United States has lent more credence and support to government opposition in Venezuela than to the recognized elected government. Senator Robert Menendez, Chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in hearings designed to impose sanctions against Venezuela, tended to “minimize the seriousness of the widespread violence carried out by the opposition.” He went on to blame the Maduro government for the continued unrest.
The current policies of all three states and their intelligence agencies are similar in execution, though Honduras and Venezuela seem more brutal and less concerned with collateral damage. Consequently, they have not been as successful because the intelligence agencies have acted in a bipolar way, often collaborating with criminal elements and terrorists while also gathering intelligence for their ultimate demise. Western liberal democracies have stronger, more executable laws that prevent such intrusive and systemic levels of corruption and are thus able to more successfully deal with organizational threats.
Given their common Latin heritage and geopolitical concerns, all three countries should be acting in concert and sharing intelligence. With state-of-the-art technologies and closer ties with the West, the ability to share intelligence and create a regional security zone is certainly within the realm of possibility. Recent reforms in Colombia have gone a long way to clean up governmental agency corruption, especially within its intelligence organization, making its IC less prone to militarization and politicization. Honduras and Venezuela comparatively have a long way to go but they could learn a lot from their near peer. Only time will tell how seriously they consider the opportunity.
The Conference on Libya hosted in Palermo, Sicily
It currently seems that the Conference on Libya scheduled in Palermo, Sicily, will finally be a predictable success for the Italian government.
General Haftar, the powerful man of Cyrenaica (and currently also of Sirte) arrived in Rome on October 28 last for an informal visit which, however, was extremely useful for the Palermo Conference and for Italy’s future strategy in Libya.
The Head of the old “Operation Dignity” will certainly be also in Palermo, while Russia will probably be represented by Medvedev or by the Deputy Foreign Minister, Bogdanov. Or even by Dimitri Peskov. Nevertheless, whoever of them will participate in the Conference will have President Putin’s personal instructions to follow. Moreover, President Putin will follow the Conference debate in Sicily with extreme care.
Russia’s goal is to stabilize its presence in Libya, regardless of the political results reached by the Palermo Conference, and hence to start a strategic relationship also with Fayez al-Sarraj and Misrata’s Seventh Brigade, as well as with the major tribes of the Tripoli area. This can be achieved above all with the Italian support.
Nothing is more distant from the Russian interest than an exclusive bilateral relationship with General Haftar, of whom Russia has even minted the new coins with Colonel Gaddafi’s profile.
Russia, however, could have Italy’s good offices for establishing relations with Fayez al-Sarraj, with Misrata’s militias and, finally, the Fezzan areas, where Russia could establish itself as a major economic partner.
General Haftar’s Cyrenaica is thus moving away from France, whose intelligence services still fight side by side with his own militias. Why? Because the powerful man of Cyrenaica knows that, having an exclusive relationship with France, he would remain isolated in Europe and, above all, vis-à-vis Egypt.
In fact, President Al Sisi has put pressure on General Haftar to be in Palermo and not trust completely France, which only wants ENI’s oil wells – as at Sarkozy’s time – and in the future would certainly not be sympathetic to the government of Cyrenaica, as it appears today.
Another decisive sign for the positive outcome of the Conference is the fact that General Haftarhas also stated that Italian Ambassador Perrone can return to Tripoli.
Also Aguila Saleh Issa – the President of the Tobruk-based Parliament that recognizes al-Sarraj’s government, but relies on General Haftar’s forces – will be in Palermo.
He is an excellent and authoritative mediator.
Also Saleh, who has already come to Rome, is a prestigious personality that can possibly Endeavour to reach an agreement for a future unification of the country.
The problem of unification will be posed by Ahmed Mitig, the leader of Misrata – another figure that could take the lead of a new unitary project – as well as by Khaled al-Meshri and even Khalifa Gwell, now defeated by al-Sarraj’s troops (and by Misrata’s 7thBrigade led by Mitig), but always useful-or, indeed, necessary – to reach stable peace in Libya. It will be Italy – if capable to do so – to establish a new hierarchy and provide guarantees to the various leaders for a national, but widely regionalized power, as it was also the case at Gaddafi’s time.
It should be noted that Mitig is al-Sarraj’s No. 2 leader.
The United States has no particular interest in the Libyan dossier, which is outside their African sphere of interest, although recently some US “advisors” have secretly arrived in Sirte.
Nevertheless, the United States is strongly interested in the issue of Islamic terrorism – hence it will favour any credible solution that can stabilize Libya and stop the arrival of jihadists from sub-Saharan Africa in Europe and, possibly, in the United States itself.
The France led by President Macron – whom we do not yet know whether he will manage to participate in the Palermo Conference – is in an obviously difficult situation, also due to Macron’s non-diplomatic illness.
Should the Palermo Conference fail, its only card to play would be to establish a stronger alliance with General Haftar and also with Russia – otherwise France will basically play second fiddle in Libya and in the Maghreb region, with imaginable repercussions on its sub-Saharan and central Françafrique.
Moreover, the French intelligence services have long been operating in Fezzan to thwart the 2017 agreements signed in Rome by the various tribes of the region, with the support of the then Interior Minister, Marco Minniti (but also, fortunately, of the then Foreign Minister).
Sabotage actions, support to the French Armed Forces on the border with Niger, but also mass upheavals in Tripoli in September 2018, most likely triggered by French intelligence operatives and local Islamists.
Hence the wider the attendance at the Conference, the greater Italy’s chances of victory and, consequently, France’s chances of defeat. France, isolated on the Libyan internal chessboard, will probably take its revenge in the area of Niger.
We shall also see what role will be played by Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, who now lives in a Libyan secret location near Egypt.
Obviously Colonel Gaddafi’s most brilliant son will not be in Palermo, but it would be useful to consider him part of the game.
Saif would still be General Haftar’s card to guide and direct a unified country after the crazy and stupid “Arab spring” made by France and Great Britain, which are even more inept that the United States in the African foreign policy.
A US foreign policy which – only thanks to the fight against “terrorism” – is flooding Africa and the EU borders with drones, satellite networks and military bases to seal the EU itself, control the evolution and developments on its borders and turn the Russian Federation into a middle Asian regional power.
Moreover, should Italy’s project fail, French President Macron could find a role to play in the stabilization of Libya, thus creating a new mediator’s role precisely with al-Farraj, and rebuilding – probably at great cost – a new relationship with General Haftar, who let Russia know he is dissatisfied with France, which, as usual, believes it can dictate the military agenda for those it helps.
Russia, however, could also accept France’s role if the Palermo Conference failed. Russia only wants to reach the intended result. It does not want, however, to antagonize Italy, the oil power needed in Libya and the future destabilizer of the now disturbing EU, which has got in the way with Ukraine and the sanctions and tension with the countries of the old Warsaw Pact, which are now EU Member States. President Trump does not like Europe at all and has showed it everywhere. President Putin, however, who is more reserved and discreet, could be fed up with a European Union that – as a foolish servant – repeats the US propaganda and is no longer useful as business partner as it was in the past. Now time has come for the Russian-Chinese axis, which ensures Russia’s economic growth – an axis passing through the Mediterranean, not the Eurasian peninsula.
Hence we also need to think about the outcome of the meetings that will be held by the French Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, in Paris on November 8 next.
These meetings will be attended by some Misrata’s and 7thBrigade’s leaders, and by Abo Kassim Kozeit, member of the High Council of State, as well as by MPs Soleiman Elfaqih and Mohammed Erraid, and GNA advisors Ali Bousseta and Ettaher Elbaour, in addition to Haftar’s military men Salha Juha and Mohammed Eddarat.
Preparation for a coup or for another government in exile? This is the reason why Haftar is worried.
Hence the Paris meetings will be a sort of Palermo Conference – hosted in a cold weather location, with the second and third ranks of the various participants in the Sicilian Conference – to mobilize and anyway activate the French networks in Libya for elections in the near future, which may possibly be interesting for some participants, and for a “plan for Libya” by the French intelligence services which will not convince al-Sarraj, who does not want to die in an attack on his government’s palace. This must be clearly said in Palermo.
Nevertheless, it will not even convince General Haftar, who now fears his arrogant allies and looks to Russia and also to Italy for putting an end to the conflict in a way that, however, does not humiliate him.
At the last Libyan elections only 17% of people voted – certainly not a share of voters that would make us take them seriously.
Elections in the near future, by which the covert operations of the French intelligence services set great store, would only create the conditions for a new fratricidal war – and this must be clearly explained to all the Libyan parties participating in the forthcoming Conference scheduled in Palermo.
For the Italian intelligence services said Conference is a significant turning point.
As far as we know, the Director of the Foreign Intelligence Service (AISE), Alberto Manenti, who was born in Tarhouna, depends on the outcome of the Palermo Conference, while also the domestic intelligence agency (AISI) and the Department of Security Intelligence (DIS) are under very strong pressure.
Our American friends should also be pointed out that only the future unity of the Government of National Accord (GNA), Haftar’s forces, the Tobruk-based government and other parties is the sole guarantee of a serious struggle against ISIS.
A repression of Libyan jihadism which is not at all a marginal goal, neither for Libya nor for Europe, considering the persisting tensions in Sirte, the reorganization of the so-called “radical” Islam in Fezzan (which could also benefit France, which would direct it towards the North) and the Caliphate’s final penetration also along the coastal lines.
Let us imagine that the recent visit paid by the Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini, to Doha, the capital of Qatar, protecting the Muslim Brotherhood and supporting al-Sarraj, together with Turkey, has created a credible pressure of this Emirate on the Government of National Accord (GNA) for a platform – which is allegedly already circulating within the Italian Government – on the gradual unification of the Libyan Armed Forces.
A platform which is also the new goal of Al Sisi’s Egypt – although we do not know to what extent this goal is credible. Probably Egypt is finally fed up with funding and training General Haftar’s expensive army that, however, is still targeting its own offensive on Derna, a jihadist city-State.
It should also be recalled that, just the day before the beginning of the Palermo Conference, Donald J. Trump and Vladimir Putin will meet in Paris for the future revision of the INF Treaty regarding medium-range missiles, recently rejected by the USA.
President Trump speaks about the Russian missiles, but he actually means the Chinese ones: should the new INF Treaty be reworded as desired by the US Administration, it would lead to the destruction of 95% of Chinese missiles.
And the United States strategically holds China only from the Pacific, from South Korea and from the bases in Japan.
Hence, probably President Macron wants to be credited for a success in the negotiation – even only for media purposes – but it is much more likely that the Paris agreement on the new INF Treaty would ultimately be just a list of fine words.
Nevertheless, it would count to overshadow the Sicilian Conference and marginalize the Italian government and its image vis-à-vis Libya and the allies.
We do not know yet what Chancellor Merkel will say. She will be in Palermo representing a country that has not participated – except for a small e-warfare brigade -in the Western struggle to support the jihadists of Cyrenaica that led to the collapse of Gaddafi’s regime. In all likelihood, she will also devise a role as mediator, but politically weakened at national level and without a clear strategic direction in Africa which, however, would lead her to support-for want of anything better – the French assumptions and options.
Are we sure, however, that President Macron – so rhetorically pro-European – wants to deal with a German ally he has already antagonized on public accounts and the endless mass of irremovable civil servants? In no case President Macron wants to get involved, in Africa, with the German Armed Forces in disarray and with a primary goal in mind, which is still the Eurasian East?
Certainly France has invited the second and third ranks of the two major Libyan groups, led by al-Sarraj and Haftar, with a view to imitating the inclusion strategy that has characterized the Italian preparatory work for the Palermo Conference scheduled at Villa Igea.
Moreover, thirteen small groups invited by President Macron have already decided not to attend the Paris meeting.
In fact, Prime Minister Conte’s government has involved all the participants in the Libyan game, including the apparently minor ones.
Also in view of weakening al-Sarraj, Khalifa Haftar would like to have – and probably already has – a good relationship with Misrata’s militias which, together with the other 250 autonomous militias, make up the unsafe, insecure and expensive (also for others) military basis of al-Sarraj’s government.
As already noted, Ahmed Mitig is the powerful man of Misrata and al-Sarraj’sNo. 2 leader.
Last year Mitig had also been to Agrigento, Sicily, for the first Italian-Libyan Forum. Meanwhile the Conference was being prepared.
The Palermo Conference will also be attended by Khaled Meshri, the President of Libya’s Supreme Council of State and No. 3 leader who, upon precise orders, will probably leave the Paris quasi-Summit on Libya and give up its elusive “elections”.
As already noted, the Conference will be also attended by Aguila Saleh Issa, the President of the GNA Parliament. but having excellent relations with the Tobruk-based Parliament.
He is certainly a decisive figure in Libya’s current and future set-up.
Moreover, there are already jihadist infiltrations also in Tripoli and Ghassan Salamè, the UN Special Representative in Libya, has publicly accused al-Sarraj of being weak.
Therefore Al-Sarraj is no longer as powerful within the Tripoli government as he was a year ago and General Haftar does not fail to let it know that he still wants to get to Tripoli.
We need to ensure a honourable role to al-Sarraj; to let General Haftar know he can now stabilize his conquests, but must also have the support of Tripoli’s and Misrata’s forces, as well as of many Fezzan tribes, with whom the Italian intelligence services have always been in contact; to make it clear also for the old Head of “Operation Dignity” that it is useless to defeat and humiliate his enemies in Tripoli – a harshness that will unleash other tribal wars.
There is also another decisive factor, namely finance. Some of Gaddafi’s assets in the Libyan Investment Authority (LIA) and in other related investment companies have not yet been requisitioned by the United Nations, which had forgotten to make banking requisition mandatory for governments.
LIA’s division between Libya and Malta is ineffective and has led some Libyan financial transactions to come close to very dangerous environments.
General Haftar controlled the Oil Crescent’s wells, but eventually agreed to reach a reasonable arrangement on the oil sale proceeds.
All the money made or the returns on investment – currently limited -of the funds of Gaddafi’s regime in the EU and abroad must return to the new Libya.
This is the reason why – starting from the Palermo Conference – an Organization for the Financial Autonomy of the whole Libya could be set up which, in view of the future reunification of the area, should establish an equitable and even stable distribution of income between the regions, as well as enlarged representation between tribes and local governments, and the EU protection, with a delegation of powers to Italy, which already controls – with ENI and fully respecting all parties – the oil-related assets.
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