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A Mohammedan Game of Thrones: Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Fight for Regional Hegemony

James J. Rooney, Jr.

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Authors: James J. Rooney, Jr. & Dr. Matthew Crosston*

The people in the United States didn’t think well of those living in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. There was a basic mistrust and a lack of kind words on both sides. But what you didn’t hear was anyone excitedly talking about wanting to completely annihilate the other side despite both having the capacity to do just that. Fast forward to 2018: to Saudi Arabia and Iran and a new regional Middle East version of Mutually Assured Destruction, where it takes on a whole new meaning. Both of these nations maintain terrible images of each and neither would probably shed a tear if the Earth suddenly opened up and swallowed the other. Forgive the propensity to reach hyperbole, but in truth this rivalry goes back 1,385 years when, just after the death of the prophet Mohammed in AD 632, there arose among the faithful a disagreement concerning the issue of succession. Mohammed drafted a Last Will & Testament and set up an ancient version of a Trust Fund for the kids’ college/ lifeneeds, but never said a word about succession. In hindsight we now know what colossally poor planning this was as it led to a split between two key factions that would come to be known as the Sunni (who favored a vote for succession) and the Shi’a (who favored keeping it in Mohammed’s bloodline). “The Sunnis prevailed and chose a successor to be the first caliph.” (Shuster, 2017, 1) What followed was a swinging pendulum of tension with hundreds of years of both war and peace interspersed between the two sides. Today, it looks like they’re heading back to war in some form. But the real question is, are they heading back to war because of a 1,000+ year old religious grudge match? Many experts think not. Some say that the bad blood that has been forming between Saudi Arabia and Iran is not about religion, but something else: competing and hostile legitimizing myths. “With the aim of uniting peoples behind their leaders in distinction to ‘the other’, as it is so often the case, religion is misused as a dividing tool in order to enforce a political agenda.” (Reimann, 2016, 3) Not surprisingly, there are religious overtones embedded within these regional hegemonic politics pushing both sides continuously to greater episodes of dangerous tension.

The House of Al Saud, the ruling royal family of Saudi Arabia, is composed of the descendants of Muhammad bin Saud, founder of the Emirate of Diriyah, which was known as the First Saudi state (1744–1818), and his brothers. The ruling faction of the family, however, is primarily led by the descendants of Ibn Saud, the modern founder of Saudi Arabia. The government of Iran is a modern Shia theocracy that was forged in part by the overthrow of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran, in 1979. Today, “Iran is considered a unitary Islamic republic with one legislative house. The country’s 1979 constitution put into place a mixed system of government, in which the executive, parliament, and judiciary are overseen by several bodies dominated by the clergy. At the head of both the state and oversight institutions is a ranking cleric known as the rahbar, or leader, whose duties and authority are those usually equated with a head of state.” (Editorial Staff, 2017. 1) Ironically, many have argued that Iran has one of the most democratically structured Constitutions in the world, if not for these extra-constitutional religious oversight bodies that sit over all of the constitutional structures. Even putting the religious affiliations and religio-political structures aside, these two countries are as different as Persian night and Saudi day.

Both Saudi Arabia and Iran view themselves through the legitimizing myth of being the purer form of Islam and true holder of Mohammed’s legacy. As if that wasn’t conflictual enough, to make matters worse, the Wahhabist theocratic leadership in Riyadh sees the government and family of Saud as secular barbarians that strategically use their Sunni Wahhabist religious connections as a hedge to maintain power. The royal family of Saudi Arabia, for its part, views the theocracy of Iran as a bastardized form of Islam led by illegitimate Imams that hold a potentially progressive nation hostage to outdated religious edicts that have no relevance in the modern Islamic world. Even more dismissively, the Saudi royal family sneer at how this ‘Iranian backwardness’ has led directly to decades of crippling American sanctions against the people. Of course, the theocracy in Iran sees the cozy relationship between the Saudis and Americans as proof of the infidel fall of the keepers of the Prophet’s two great cities, Mecca and Medina. The Saudis are in bed with the Great Satan.

These underlying myths that debate ancient religious legitimacy may be fueling the hatred and Muslim-on-Muslim discrimination found on both sides. But disturbingly, there is one more legitimizing myth that might actually rule over all the others and it’s tied to the massive political power and influence greased by black crude. Saudi Arabia comes in as number 2 in terms of the world’s known oil reserves. Iran sits at number 4. That oil, and the wealth and political power it translates to, is not lost on either side. Oil is easily the top revenue-producing commodity in both countries. While ups and downs in the global market can have serious consequences for both countries, it means more damage for Iran than Saudi Arabia. The royal Saudi family has wisely/secretly over the past half century stashed away over half a trillion dollars to uniformly smooth out the revenue curves that are innate to the natural resource market in a volatile global economy. Since Tehran has been the subject of severe sanctions, due to its association with Islamic extremism and terrorism, it simply has not been able to create the same safety net/golden pillow of economic protection. Consequently, Iran has not been able to capitalize on its vast reserves of oil, selling much of it on the black market for rock bottom prices to less-than-ideal market consumers. This disparity in oil wealth, the freedom of action within the world market, and the subsequent ability to wield enhanced political power in the region is the real legitimizing myth that acts as a true political hammer separating the two and concretizing their strife with one another.

Iran’s political and military expansion into Syria, and its alliance with Russia, is another facet of its hegemonic intentions and desire to unseat Saudi Arabia as the real regional power broker. Iran appears willing to become a client or “dependent” ally of Russia, much as Saudi Arabia has a similar arrangement with the United States. Obviously, this is a dangerous recipe: regional power pretenses, advanced weapons from larger global powers, divergent religious positions, and political gamesmanship operating in the middle of another country’s civil war. Both Russia and the United States have cautiously moved their respective chess pieces as events develop in Syria, but unfortunately this caution does not exhibit the press for peace: rather, the American-Russian chess game in Syria only seems to exacerbate the animosity between the Saudis and Iranians. The alleged chemical weapon attacks on rebel positions inside Damascus by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russian forces, caused a direct but limited military response by Washington. American cruise missile attacks on Syrian chemical weapons plants, though marginally effective, nevertheless was a message to Russia and Iran that the U.S. would defend its interests in the region. Those interests are decidedly in favor of a Saudi regional hegemonic leadership. Thus, what we have are cross-competing and hostile legitimizing myths being created in real time about what the future role of each of these players is going to be, America supporting the Saudi myth and Russia supporting the Iranian one.

Clearly, Saudi Arabia and Iran are going to remain deeply entrenched in hostile efforts for political and military dominance in the region. Though ancient religious strife seems like a convenient excuse for continued bad feelings between the two powers – and is focused on to a heavy extent by world media – modern strategic reasons are more dangerous and multi-layered. What we can recognize is an old fashion game of power politics in which both sides have aligned themselves with powerful and protective allies. This game is being made manifest in a critical region of the world where resources are converted to global wealth and power. The parties should remember that oil is combustible. Politics built on oil even more so. But politics built on oil, doused in religious fervor, and shaken vigorously by outside players with their own agendas is the most combustible of all. For the time being, this Mohammedan Game of Thrones seems to have a plotline that will be as deadly and bloody as its more famous Hollywood moniker.

*Dr. Matthew Crosston is Executive Vice Chairman of ModernDiplomacy.eu. He is Senior Doctoral Faculty in the School of Security and Global Studies at the American Military University and was just named the future Co-Editor of the seminal International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence. His work is catalogued at:  https://brown.academia.edu/ProfMatthewCrosston/Analytics

James J. Rooney, Jr. is the Boeing Senior Manager of the Guidance, Navigation and Control Subsystem of the International Space Station in Houston, Texas. Prior to joining Boeing in 1997, he spent twenty-eight years in the United States Air Force as a Command Pilot and Program Director for Air Force Space Systems. He is now a doctoral candidate Strategic Intelligence in the School of Security and Global Studies at the American Military University.

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Middle East

Could Turkish aggression boost peace in Syria?

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On October 7, 2019, the U.S. President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of American troops from northeast Syria, where the contingent alongside Kurdish militias controlled the vast territories. Trump clarified that the decision is connected with the intention of Turkey to attack the Kurdish units, posing a threat to Ankara.

It’s incredible that the Turkish military operation against Kurds – indeed the territorial integrity of Syria has resulted in the escape of the U.S., Great Britain, and France. These states essentially are key destabilizing components of the Syrian crisis.

Could this factor favourably influence the situation in the country? For instance, after the end of the Iraqi war in 2011 when the bulk of the American troops left the country, the positive developments took place in the lives of all Iraqis. According to World Economics organization, after the end of the conflict, Iraq’s GDP grew by 14% in 2012, while during the U.S. hostilities the average GDP growth was about 5,8%.

Syria’s GDP growth should also be predicted. Not right away the withdrawal of U.S., French, British, and other forces, but a little bit later after the end of the Turkish operation that is not a phenomenon. The Turkish-Kurdish conflict has been going on since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire when Kurds started to promote the ideas of self-identity and independence. Apart from numerous human losses, the Turks accomplished nothing. It is unlikely that Ankara would achieve much in Peace Spring operation. The Kurds realize the gravity of the situation and choose to form an alliance with the Syrian government that has undermined the ongoing Turkish offensive.

Under these circumstances, Erdogan could only hope for the creation of a narrow buffer zone on the Syrian-Turkish border. The withdrawal of the Turkish forces from the region is just a matter of time. However, we can safely say that the Turkish expansion unwittingly accelerated the peace settlement of the Syrian crisis, as the vital destabilizing forces left the country. Besides, the transfer of the oil-rich north-eastern regions under the control of Bashar Assad will also contribute to the early resolution of the conflict.

It remains a matter of conjecture what the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia agreed on during the high-level talks. Let’s hope that not only the Syrians, but also key Gulf states are tired of instability and tension in the region, and it’s a high time to strive for a political solution to the Syrian problem.

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Turkey and the Kurds: What goes around comes around

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Turkey, like much of the Middle East, is discovering that what goes around comes around.

Not only because President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to have miscalculated the fallout of what may prove to be a foolhardy intervention in Syria and neglected alternative options that could have strengthened Turkey’s position without sparking the ire of much of the international community.

But also because what could prove to be a strategic error is rooted in a policy of decades of denial of Kurdish identity and suppression of Kurdish cultural and political rights that was more likely than not to fuel conflict rather than encourage societal cohesion.

The policy midwifed the birth in the 1970s to militant groups like the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which only dropped its demand for Kurdish independence in recent years.

The group that has waged a low intensity insurgency that has cost tens of thousands of lives has been declared a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.

Turkish refusal to acknowledge the rights of the Kurds, who are believed to account for up to 20 percent of the country’s population traces its roots to the carving of modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire by its visionary founder, Mustafa Kemal, widely known as Ataturk, Father of the Turks.

It is entrenched in Mr. Kemal’s declaration in a speech in 1923 to celebrate Turkish independence of “how happy is the one who calls himself a Turk,” an effort to forge a national identity for country that was an ethnic mosaic.

The phrase was incorporated half a century later in Turkey’s student oath and ultimately removed from it in 2013 at a time of peace talks between Turkey and the PKK by then prime minister, now president Erdogan.

It took the influx of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980s and early 1990s as well as the 1991 declaration by the United States, Britain and France of a no-fly zone in northern Iraq that enabled the emergence of an autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region to spark debate in Turkey about the Kurdish question and prompt the government to refer to Kurds as Kurds rather than mountain Turks.

Ironically, Turkey’s enduring refusal to acknowledge Kurdish rights and its long neglect of development of the pre-dominantly Kurdish southeast of the country fuelled demands for greater rights rather than majority support for Kurdish secession largely despite the emergence of the PKK

Most Turkish Kurds, who could rise to the highest offices in the land s long as they identified as Turks rather than Kurds, resembled Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, whose options were more limited even if they endorsed the notion of a Jewish state.

Nonetheless, both minorities favoured an independent state for their brethren on the other side of the border but did not want to surrender the opportunities that either Turkey or Israel offered them.

The existence for close to three decades of a Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq and a 2017 referendum in which an overwhelming majority voted for Iraqi Kurdish independence, bitterly rejected and ultimately nullified by Iraqi, Turkish and Iranian opposition, did little to fundamentally change Turkish Kurdish attitudes.

If the referendum briefly soured Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish relations, it failed to undermine the basic understanding underlying a relationship that could have guided Turkey’s approach towards the Kurds in Syria even if dealing with Iraqi Kurds may have been easier because, unlike Turkish Kurds, they had not engaged in political violence against Turkey.

The notion that there was no alternative to the Turkish intervention in Syria is further countered by the fact that Turkish PKK negotiations that started in 2012 led a year later to a ceasefire and a boosting of efforts to secure a peaceful resolution.

The talks prompted imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan to publish a letter endorsing the ceasefire, the disarmament and withdrawal from Turkey of PKK fighters, and a call for an end to the insurgency. Mr. Ocalan predicted that 2013 would be the year in which the Turkish Kurdish issues would be resolved peacefully.

The PKK’s military leader, Cemil Bayik, told the BBC three years later that “we don’t want to separate from Turkey and set up a state. We want to live within the borders of Turkey on our own land freely.”

The talks broke down in 2015 against the backdrop of the Syrian war and the rise as a US ally of the United States in the fight against the Islamic State of the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).

Bitterly opposed to the US-YPG alliance, Turkey demanded that the PKK halt its resumption of attacks on Turkish targets and disarm prior to further negotiations.

Turkey responded to the breakdown and resumption of violence with a brutal crackdown in the southeast of the country and on the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

Nonetheless, in a statement issued from prison earlier this year that envisioned an understanding between Turkey and Syrian Kurdish forces believed to be aligned with the PKK, Mr. Ocalan declared that “we believe, with regard to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the problems in Syria should be resolved within the framework of the unity of Syria, based on constitutional guarantees and local democratic perspectives. In this regard, it should be sensitive to Turkey’s concerns.”

Turkey’s emergence as one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s foremost investors and trading partners in exchange for Iraqi Kurdish acquiescence in Turkish countering the PKK’s presence in the region could have provided inspiration for a US-sponsored safe zone in northern Syria that Washington and Ankara had contemplated.

The Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish understanding enabled Turkey  to allow an armed Iraqi Kurdish force to transit Turkish territory in 2014 to help prevent the Islamic State from conquering the Syrian city of Kobani.

A safe zone would have helped “realign the relationship between Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its Syrian offshoot… The safe-zone arrangements… envision(ed) drawing down the YPG presence along the border—a good starting point for reining in the PKK, improving U.S. ties with Ankara, and avoiding a potentially destructive Turkish intervention in Syria,” Turkey scholar Sonar Cagaptay suggested in August.

The opportunity that could have created the beginnings of a sustainable solution that would have benefitted Turkey as well as the Kurds fell by the wayside with Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from northern Syria.

In many ways, Mr. Erdogan’s decision to opt for a military solution fits the mould of a critical mass of world leaders who look at the world through a civilizational prism and often view national borders in relative terms.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin pointed the way with his 2008 intervention in Georgia and the annexation in 2014 of Crimea as well as Russia’s stirring of pro-Russian insurgencies in two regions of Ukraine.

Mr. Erdogan appears to believe that if Mr. Putin can pull it off, so can he.

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What will Middle East gain from US’ “retreat”?

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Throughout the year, American commentators have been sounding alarm over the weakening of the US positions in the Middle East. Optimists say Washington has intentionally been “cutting down on its commitments”. According to pessimists, America is quickly losing credibility amid an acute crisis of trust in its relations with its closest allies. Some of these allies are even working to harmonize relationships with Washington’s geopolitical rivals, or are looking for common ground to strike with those who are officially deemed “US enemies”.

Experts say the policy of the Trump administration in the Middle East should be more consistent, both in conceptual and personnel terms. This policy should be devoid of any sudden or drastic moves which could only undermine trust between the United States and the Gulf countries, Yasmine Farouk of the Carnegie Foundation said in February. Over the past six months, there have appeared sufficient grounds to believe that Iran “is gripped by fear and experiences a sense of despair in the confrontation with the United States.” However, the White House’s current policy on Tehran, which is lacking clear vision and trustworthy strategy, is sowing more and more seeds of distrust between America and its Sunni allies. This schism is the very “fundamental geostrategic success” that Iran has “sought to achieve over the past 40 years.” Now, Tehran sees more and more “opportunities and advantages” for itself, wrote Kenneth Pollack, an expert with Foreign Policy, at the end of September.

From 1991 to 2010 the United States enjoyed “incontestable supremacy in the Middle East. Even on the eve of the “Arab Spring”, most states in the region depended on America for help and “understanding” in many vital issues. However, the results of the Middle East policy of recent years are disappointing, Dennis Ross and Dana Stroul from the Washington Institute for Middle Eastern Policy say. The recent moves taken by the Trump administration, starting from the US withdrawal from the “nuclear deal” in May last year, which aimed at forcing Iran to make concessions, have “fallen through.” The attempt to reduce Iran’s activities in the region to zero by tightening sanctions, which, according to the White House, were to deprive Tehran of resources to pursue a full-fledged foreign policy, “did not work to effect.” If President Trump had actually managed to “isolate” anyone in the region, then it is not Iran, but the United States. Experts believe that the ambitious statements that have been made by Washington on a daily basis were not supported by convincing action, political or military. The White House’s flagrant reluctance to defend its allies deepens the gap between America and its partners in the Gulf Region. In addition, the policy of ill-thought sanctions led to the alienation of the European allies as well, without whom pressure on Tehran makes no sense.

Donald Trump strongly disagrees with such criticism, emphasizing that his foreign policy is based on “pragmatism” and “objective interests”. Concerning the Middle East, these words can be understood in at least two different ways. On the one hand, the current US administration believes that “cooperation” implies, first of all, the promotion of the “monetization” of the alliance, which was unequivocally announced in the Trump National Security Strategy in December 2017. Allies and partners are required to “contribute” by allocating more funds for the purchase of American weapons.

On the other hand, domestic oil production in the US has increased significantly in recent years, primarily due to the introduction of shale oil extraction technologies. As a result, America is rapidly turning “into a major competitor” of oil and gas suppliers from the Middle East. The presence in Washington’s regional policy of many Cold War – era features, including the dominance of ideology and the division of countries into “friends” and “foes,” may also have a new, extremely unpleasant interpretation for the Persian Gulf states. What is meant is Washington’s attempts to breathe new life into maintaining (or formal strengthening – despite the apparent setbacks, for example, of the concept of “Arab NATO”), a political architecture in which the region is divided into warring blocs. Given the situation, the deeper the region plunges into the chaos of destabilization, the easier it will be for the United States to deprive Saudi Arabia of its current status as the “regulator” of the global oil market.

Meanwhile, the Middle East’s geopolitical landscape is becoming ever more polycentric as more and more countries of the region demonstrate their intention to “stand for their interests”. In this context, the Trump administration’s obsession with the “Iranian threat” is causing ever more bewilderment among some Arab allies, as Tehran, for its part, has put forward and supported initiatives to alleviate regional tensions. According to IRNA, on September 23, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced proposals “to ensure the safety of navigation in the region” and promote interstate cooperation in the Persian Gulf. The project, known as the “Hormuz Peace Initiative”,  encompasses “both security and economic issues.” “All countries of the Persian Gulf are invited to participate in a new format of regional dialogue,” –  the Iranian president said.  On October 1, Iranian Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani welcomed a statement made the day before by Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, that he was ready to start a dialogue between the two countries.

Six months ago, Riyadh, as well as Bahrain, unconditionally supported the US line for a tough confrontation with Iran. However, serious doubts were voiced by  leaders of Egypt, Jordan and Qatar. Kuwait, Qatar and Oman even came up in favor of diplomatic methods of resolving disagreements with Iran. In recent months, this policy has also been backed by the UAE. However, on September 14, a number of Saudi Arabia’s major oil infrastructure facilities came under a massive attack by drones and cruise missiles. Saudi Arabia and the US “have no doubts” that Iran is behind the attack. A lot will be clarified after the results of an inquiry by the international commission are made public: the publication of evidence that proves Tehran’s direct involvement in the attack could become a casus belli for the Saudis.

In this case, America’s Arab allies will be waiting for the White House’s reaction, which puts the Trump administration “in a pretty difficult position”. Whether part of the leadership in Riyadh is ready to go all-in and strike at Iran on their own, in the hope that the United States will not be able to stay away in case of a new war in the Gulf, will become a relevant issue again. However, Saudi Arabia has demonstrated a “weakness of its army” in Yemen. And the blow against the Saudi oil refining facilities, whoever was behind it, has raised the question of the effectiveness of American means of control of regional airspace, as well as the combat readiness of the air defense system based on American technology. The absence of a clear and decisive reaction from Trump can ruin the authority of the United States, both in the Gulf countries and in the entire Middle East Region. In addition, this may have a negative effect on American voters. Meanwhile, “… America cannot and does not want to wage a war against Iran”.

Russia’s position is aimed at resolving disagreements and potential conflicts in the Middle East through negotiation with the participation of all parties involved. In a recent interview with International Affairs Chief Editor Armen Oganesyan, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov expressed hope that “the crisis involving Iran will be settled without a new outbreak of conflict”. According to Ryabkov, Moscow believes in the triumph of common sense in the region,  which is being torn by several conflicts. In early October, in response to questions from the Valdai Discussion Club, the head of Russian diplomacy Sergey Lavrov  dwelled on Russia’s vision of the challenges facing the region. “Undoubtedly, security must be ensured in the Persian Gulf, but Iran has proposals that are not directed against anyone, they are not exclusive, they invite all countries to join forces.”

Russia, in turn, has come up with a proposal to begin a comprehensive and constructive dialogue on the concept of a Collective Security Treaty for the Persian Gulf with the prospect of its expansion to the entire Middle East. Addressing the participants in the Valdai Forum on October 3, President Vladimir Putin recalled how Moscow “together with partners of the Astana format” had brought together the interested countries in the region and the international community to launch a political settlement in Syria. The negotiations were joined by the United States. President Putin paid tribute to “President Trump’s courage and ability to take extraordinary steps”. The crisis involving the Korean Peninsula dissolved very quickly, he said, once the US administration moved from head-on confrontation to dialogue. The Syrian settlement  “may become a kind of model for resolving regional crises. And in the vast majority of cases, it will be the diplomatic mechanisms that will come handy. The use of force is an extreme measure, a forced exception,” –  President Putin emphasized. Moscow advocates convergence of efforts to address common threats. The latest initiative, which is based on this principle, is the idea of creating an organization “for security and cooperation, which, in addition to the Gulf countries, could comprise Russia, China, the USA, the EU, India and other countries concerned as observers”.

According to optimistic-minded American observers, the US leadership’s demonstration of restraint and caution on the use of force can have positive consequences – it could prompt countries of the Middle East to seek diplomatic solutions . But is Washington ready and able to “seize on the chance” and join international efforts to launch an extensive dialogue of all regional countries concerned? Up to now,  the Trump administration has demonstrated the potential to weaken, or even completely destroy,  multilateral institutions and formats, rather than create or support them. In the end, it is the “credo” of unilateralism that is behind the US doctrinal documents and foreign policy practice.

The Middle East faces a long and difficult search for solutions if it wants to successfully address many internal problems, which, in most cases, are knotty, to say the least. The process of overcoming the consequences of the “crises of the decade” will take years. Considering this, the Middle Eastern states will have to play an ever greater role in resolving regional problems. Contributing to this  will be the weakening of the former hegemon, which has been increasingly hinging on the use of force in recent years.  Russia’s return to the Middle East for securing a balance of strength will make it possible to avoid the detrimental consequences of underestimating the international dimension of threats coming from a number of regional conflicts. In addition, it will encourage a departure from the counterproductive policy of forming artificial “division lines”. 

From our partner International Affairs

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