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Turkey’s presence in Syria

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Putin erdogan sochi

Following their meeting in Sochi on October 23, 2019, Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyp Erdogan officially announced a ceasefire throughout Northern Syria.

 The bilateral agreement reached in Sochi strengthens the role played by Bashar al-Assad in the region between the Syrian Kurdish world and the area on the border with Turkey. It also ensures the permanence of Russian forces throughout Syria and finally serves to formalize the Turkish military presence in the region and in Syrian territory. A position of the Turkish forces on the border between Syria and Turkey, for about 32 kilometres from the borderline between the two countries.

With a view to separating the Syrian Rojava (which means “East”, in Kurdish) from the Kurdish areas of Iran, Turkey and Iraq.

Russia regards this agreement as the final confirmation of the victory of the Syrian forces of Assad (and Russia) in the long Syrian war.

 The Russian Federation won in Syria because it bet on the comparatively stronger horse, i.e. Assad’s regime, and also because it had a coherent and stable strategy, compared to Obama’s and Trump’s ambiguities. An additional reason was that no European country, frightened by the instability of the North American attitude, joined the United States in its actions on Syrian soil.

 The agreement between Erdogan and Putin in Syria, which was born as early as the Turkish leader’s repression of the 2016 attempted coup d’état, has even created the “Astana Process” involving also Iran in a negotiation which has metaphorically “killed” the Geneva talks, where many pro-American elements were also present and active.

However, even after the knocking out of the Geneva talks, the United States was still significantly present in North-Eastern Syria, before the arrival of Turkey throughout Northern Syria.

 Now the U.S. forces have largely withdrawn, precisely as a result of Turkish operations. Hence there is no possibility, however remote, that the USA can wage again a war against Assad starting from North-Eastern Syria.

 That was Russia’ greatest fear.

In Syria, as early as 2015, Russia has always attached greater importance to operations in Western Syria, while the recent Turkish attack against Afrin has ensured that Turkey and Russia actually expelled the Kurds from the area – the Kurds who, after all, were the only U.S. real strategic asset.

 All the Turkish projects for Northern Syria, ranging from the transfer of the Turkey-supported jihadists from Idlib eastwards to the use of the many Syrian Sunni refugees in Turkey to replace the Kurds in North-Eastern Syria, are a strategic blessing for Russia.

 On the one hand, it is currently possible for Assad to directly hit Idlib alone but, on the other, we also need to consider the Turkish  pressure on the Kurds towards the East, which jeopardizes the link between Turkey and the United States.

This is another excellent result for the Russian strategy in Syria. There was also the U.S. forces’ hasty relinquishment of their role in protecting the Syrian Democratic Forces, led by the Kurds, which put the Kurds themselves in a position to accept the new Russian “protection”.

Russia also reaffirmed the 1998 Adana Agreement between Syria and Turkey, which envisaged the possibility for the Turkish forces to cross the border and exert strong pressure on the Kurds.

Nevertheless, what does the Russian Federation really want from the Kurds and especially from their Syrian Democratic Forces?

 The agreements reached so far to organize Turkish-Russian “joint patrol units” on the Syrian border enable Russia to become the only future peace broker in Syria, while Assad’s army has moved to  North-Eastern Syria, by establishing itself well away from the safe zones that Turkey has already occupied.

 A “zero-sum game” for everyone, except for the United States. The European Union, as usual, is not part of the game.

Russia, however, does not want to shoulder the whole burden of territorial control of Eastern Syria, but it lacks the new proxies, i.e. the autonomous forces acting in its name and on its behalf.

 At the beginning of Russia’s engagement in Syria, its aim was only to support Assad and put an end to the US obsession for the “Arab springs”, which were destabilizing as never before. However, now that there are multiple actors on Syrian territory, Putin wants to manage relations with everyone and with the utmost care, considering that his primary goal is currently not to accept a simultaneous clash with many opponents.

Other problems for the Russian strategic decision-making are to avoid the clash between Iran and Israel passing through Syria, but not only on Syrian territory, as well as to limit the Turkish, Kurdish and even Syrian expansion on Syria’s northern border – a situation that would no longer enable Russia to manage military equilibria  with a minimum effort.

However, what are Turkey’s real regional aspirations?

 Firstly, there is the stabilisation of Syria, and not just for the Kurdish issue. Secondly, there is the Eastern Mediterranean region and finally the Turkish positions in the Black Sea region.

 The Kurdish issue, which is well clear for Turkey, is related to its awareness of having to control its East without problems: if there are opposing forces in the Turkish expansion line towards Iraq, Syria and Central Asia, the deep core of Turkey’s current foreign policy disappears.

 There is also the energy issue, considering that Turkey buys most of its oil and gas from Russia and that it wants to play a decisive role in the new extractions that are being prepared in the Eastern Mediterranean region, between Cyprus, the Lebanon, Israel and Greece.

 Turkey is hungry for foreign investment and this must also be taken into account when defining the Turkish strategic equation.

 Turkeys’ recent purchase of the Russian S-400Triumfmissile and defence systems (NATO reporting name: SA 21 Growler) places Turkey in the position of having to rebalance its military relations with the United States but, in the Black Sea area, Turkey’s and Russia’s interests tend to conflict.

As stated above, the relationship between Russia and Turkey was born from the Turkish perception that the United States is somehow involved in the 2016 attempted coup.

Moreover, Russia wants to take Turkey out of the NATO geostrategic environment, both through the sale of weapons such as the S-400 and with the wise exacerbation of tensions between Ankara, the EU and the USA.

 All potential breaks that will not occur. President Erdogan still has his own European policy in mind and has no interest in definitively abandoning the USA just now that – with President Trump – the United States is showing its desire to move away from NATO’s European axis, but certainly only to a certain extent.

Turkey is not so much interested in this axis.

With specific reference to Syria, Russia has so far shown it wants to keep the Kurds in their traditional areas, without changing the borders of Iraq, Syria and Iran.

 On the contrary, Russia – which has not yet a formal relationship with the Kurdish YPG, i.e. the “self-defence force” of the Kurdish community – wants to create a sort of autonomy agreed between the Kurds’ Rojava in Syria and Bashar al-Assad’s government – a special autonomy guaranteed by a new future Syrian constitution.

It is also extremely important to note that Russia is the second economic partner of Turkey, immediately after Germany, while Turkey is only Russia’s fifth largest trading partner.

 In 2018, the last year for which data is available, trade between Turkey and Russia increased by as much as 37%, while Turkish exports to Russia alone increased by as much as 47%.

 Not to mention the planned renewal of the Turkish Stream Project, the natural gas transport line going from Anapa, near Krasnodar, Russia, through the Black Sea, up to Kiyikoy, on the Thracian coast of Turkey.

We should also recall the Turkish-Russian project for the construction of the Akkuyu nuclear power plant.

 For the time being and also for a long time in the future, Turkey will not leave NATO.

In terms of structures, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is not even comparable to the traditional network of the Atlantic Pact.

 The three factors that make full security and defence cooperation between Turkey and Russia difficult are respectively the still important presence of Turkey within NATO, the Ukrainian crisis and finally the Russian annexation of Crimea.

With specific reference to the purchase of the Russian S-400s, Turkey maintains that this stems from the particular difficulty of acquiring the new Western weapon systems, but Russia has not offered any co-production of its advanced weapons to Turkey.

 If Turkey could decide quickly and well on the F-35s, the new Patriot missiles, and on some co-productions of weapons with the West, it would certainly know how to get out of the agreement with Russia for the S-400s tactfully, without even severely undermine its relations with Russia.

 As to the energy trade between Turkey and the Russian Federation, the former depends on the latter for 55% of its natural gas requirements and for 12% of its oil ones.

It is not possible, however, to easily replace imports from Russia.

Moreover, Turkey exports most of its oil and gas imports from Russia to the EU. In this sector, it is second only to Nord Stream’s Germany.

 Moreover, a joint financial fund has been established between Turkey and Russia to organise their bilateral relations.

 Turkish leaders argue that this fund strengthens local currencies against the US dollar.

It is probably true.

The Fund, however, also serves to support Turkey’s true and traditional vocation to become the great oil hub from Russia, but also from the Middle East and the Caspian Sea to Europe.

 This is the reason why Turkey entered Syria.

 This is one of the necessary keys to rationally interpret the Syrian issue.

Currently Turkey’s primary strategic interest is to reduce its dependence on Russian oil and gas, but also to increase its clout as a necessary transit area for all energy trade from the Middle East and from the Russian Federation.

 In 2003, the Blue Stream completion multiplied Russian gas exports to Turkey.

 The future Turkish Stream will bring 15.75 billion cubic meters of gas from Turkey to Southern Europe within 2020.

 Russia wants to build two parallel lines, at least for the first phase.

 Obviously one for Turkey alone, and another one only for Europe.

In the Black Sea area, the USA has so far counterbalanced the Russian Federation only through Atlantic Alliance’s operations.

NATO’s presence in the Black Sea area is fundamental also for Turkey, which mainly fears that the Black Sea will become a “Russian lake” – just to use President Erdogan’s words.

Even before the war in Syria, Russia has been using Sevastopol for actions towards the Eastern Mediterranean region and this is certainly not good for Turkey.

 Moreover, at the time, Turkey favoured NATO’s institutional rooting in the Black Sea, by means of a task force between Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Italy and Germany with the U.S. tactical support.

 The project, however, failed.

Nevertheless, the Russian military presence in Syria, Armenia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as in the Crimean Peninsula, continues to fuel the Turkish fears of Russian encirclement.

Turkey, however, also avoided supporting the Western sanctions for the annexation of Crimea and Donbass, for obvious reasons of expediency, but it carried out a careful and subtle action against the Russian annexation of Crimea and for the protection of the local Tatar minority.

 Turkey is also a direct competitor of the Russian Federation in Azerbaijan and Georgia. Here Turkey has operated in connection with the European Commission to create the Southern Gas Corridor, also operational as from 2020, which will bring resources from the Middle East and Central Asia (and especially from the Caspian Sea) to the EU countries.

Since 2015 Turkey has also been supporting Georgia’s adhesion to NATO, while preserving its special relationship with Azerbaijan – a country with which Turkey signed a Strategic and Mutual Aid Agreement in 2010. Here the issue of the structural contrast between Armenia and Azerbaijan comes to the fore.

 As is well known, Russia supports Armenia, as it already did at the dawn of the Cold War.

The Russian Federation, however, also sells weapons to Azerbaijan, with a view to favouring the success of the Russia-Iran-Azerbaijan Initiative.

There is also the long-standing and unresolved problem of Nagorno-Karabakh, a low-intensity conflict that has been lasting with ups and downs since 1994.

 In this case, nothing has been decided yet in the relations between Turkey and Russia.

 Turkey, however, will keep on strengthening its relations with the Russian Federation.

Nevertheless, Turkey will never establish a stable strategic relationship with Russia, to the detriment of its participation in NATO as the second force after the United States.

 Also in the case of Italy, we will need a broader and naturally complex vision of the international relations and the national interests of Turkey and the Russian Federation itself, which are not the strategic monoliths that many Italian decision-makers unfortunately imagine.

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

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Middle East

Attack On Jerusalem – Where Is The International System?

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Since mid-20th century the conflict has been referred to as the ‘most intractable conflict’ in the world with the ongoing Israeli occupation. For more than about 54 years the international system has failed to settle this dispute and the two countries did not reach a peace agreement. In past, the Israeli Government had restricted the Palestinians and have been involved in many illicit activities violating human rights. Palestinians remain subject to Israeli military occupation and the recent attack on Masjid Al-Aqsa is strong evidence of this fact. Tensions in Jerusalem and West Bank accelerated during the Holy month of Ramadan including evictions of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem.  

The third holiest site for the Muslim community, Temple Mount also known as Masjid Al-Aqsa, located in the city of Jerusalem has been attacked by the Israel forces on the Holy night of Laylat al-Qadar and again after two days in the morning. The incident has been brought forward by the media in several ways calling it an attack conflict or clash. The Israeli police forces stormed hundreds of Palestinians during prayer time. The unrest resulted as cops entered the compound, creating an atmosphere of fear echoes of prayer together with the noise of stun grenades and fires. More than 200 Muslims offering prayer have been targeted and hit by rubber bullets and a score of attackers themselves were wounded. When the prayer zone was turned into a battlefield, the loudspeakers of the mosque called for peace and calm.

“Police must immediately stop firing stun grenades at worshippers, and the youth must calm down and be quiet!”

Violation of Human Rights pushed Palestine to demand a session of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). President of Palestine, Mahmoud Abbas “held (Israel) responsible for the dangerous developments and sinful attacks taking place in the holy city.” Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian law have been violated many times and now the international community is no more silent about it. Whatever is happening in East Jerusalem its occupation,  has no legitimate claims. UNSC has asked Israel to withdraw many times and has passed a number of resolutions demanding this. The United Nations has asked Israel to cancel any forced evictions in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem, warning that its activities could add up to “war crimes“. Moreover, Israel has no legal claim on the city but is still carrying out an ethnic cleansing campaign in East Jerusalem. The most recent example includes the eviction of Palestinian families from Sheikh Jarrah.

Once again many statements have been given by the international community condemning the actions not finding the solution to end this. Muslim countries united joining hands in hands with their Muslim brothers and sisters. Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, UAE gave their stance against Israeli actions and made it crystal clear that such actions cannot be tolerated at any cost. Moreover, European Union (EU) and United States (US) also expressed their concerns about violence.

The atrocities of Israeli police forces have now met the definitions of apartheid and persecution as stated by the report of Human Rights Watch (HRW); “A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution” released in April. This includes the crime against humanity in the region of Ghaza Strip, West Bank, and Israel. This well-researched report however has very little impact on the bilateral relations between Palestine and Israel. It states that a system of systematic oppression and racial domination with a claim over land and demographics is what Israel intends to have. Israel’s foreign minister claimed it to be an ‘anti-Israel agenda’ being both false and preposterous.

Blockade of Ghaza strip and freedom movement limitations further poses a serious threat to the population during the COVID-19 pandemic, making it more vulnerable. The firing by Islamic Jihad and its counter-attack, airstrikes against Ghaza and Hisbullah, demolitions, forcible transfers, violation of international law, discrimination, and use of force are all factors that aided the current situation between the two countries. Lack of access to health care units, feeling of fear and terror everywhere, insecure atmosphere all poses a serious question; “Where does the international system stand?”

With each escalation, all that comes forward is another resolution by UNSC for Israel to withdraw, statements from various states condemning the situation, and wait for another incident. While considering the Israel-Palestine conflict one might comprehend this issue as a failure of the international system to maintain peace. Many predictions and solutions have been brought forward by analysts and researchers each with some evidence supporting their stance. However thinking about a solution and solving the problem in actual seem to be two opposite poles of a magnet, but definitely not attracting one another.

For negotiations and peace agreements, the two states need to share a common vision which seems to be very unlikely to happen. The Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories seems to end only by establishing a relationship between the two that involves a feeling of trust and security for other states. For this, the political arrangement should be right with adequate involvement of International Organizations such as the UN. Boarder modifications and acceptance for two-state solution tend to develop the ideal conditions for this relationship.

Thus reality points in a different direction and this raises a question to the international system. Where is the international law securing the lives and freedom of people in East Jerusalem? Where is the UN Charter providing education, health, and other facilities to the people of Gaza? Where are the efforts of great powers such US, China, Russia to safeguard and secure the local citizens and maintenance of peace? Where are the rights of citizens during occupation under Geneva Convention? Where is the role of International Organizations while considering this dispute? And last but not least where the answer to all these questions is.

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Middle East

Saudi Arabia and Iran cold war

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After almost seven decades, the cold war has reached the middle east, turning into a religious war of words and diplomacy. As Winston Churchill says that “diplomacy is an art of telling someone to go to hell in such a way that they ask for the direction”. So, both the regional powers are trying to pursue a policy of subduing the adversary in a diplomatic manner. The root of the conflict lies in the 1979, Iranian revolution, which saw the toppling of the pro-western monarch shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi and replaced by the so-called supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei. From a Yemini missile attack to the assassination of the supreme commander QassimSoleimani, the political, ideological and religious differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia are taking the path of confrontation. The perennial rivalry between the two dominant Shiite and Sunni power house ins an ideological and religious one rather than being geo strategic or geo political. Back to the time when Saudi Arabia supported Saddam Hussain against the united states of Americathe decline of Saddam and his authoritarian regime was made inevitable and with this, Iran and Saudi Arabia rosed as the powerful, strategic and dominant political forces in the middle east.it was from here that the quest for supremacy to be the prepotent and commanding political powercommenced. The tensions escalated or in other words almost tended to turn into scuffles when in 2016, the Iranians stormed the Saudi embassy as a demonstration of the killing of a Shia cleric. The diplomatic ties were broken and chaos and uncertainty prevailed.

This cold war also resembles the original one., because it is also fueled by a blend of ideological conviction and brute power politics but at the same time unlike the original cold war, the middle eastern cold war is multi-dimensional and is more likely to escalate .it is more volatile and thus more prone to transformation. This followed by several incidents with each trying to isolate the other in international relations. The Saudis and Iranians have been waging proxy wars for regional dominance for decades. Yemen and Syria are the two battlegrounds, fueling the Iran-Saudi tensions. Iran has been accused of providing military assistance to the rebel Houthis, which targets the Saudi territory. It is also accused of attacking the world naval ships in the strait of Hormoz, something Iran strongly denies.  This rivalry has dragged the region into chaos and ignited Shia-Sunni conflict across the middle east. The violence in the middle east due to this perennial hostility has also dire consequences for the economy of the war-torn nations. In the midst of the global pandemic, when all the economic activities are at halt, the tensions between the two arch rivals will prove hazardous and will yield catastrophic results. The blockade of the shipping and navigation in the Gulf, attacks on international ships, and the rising concerns of the western powers regarding this issue has left Iran as an isolated country with only Russia supporting her.

A direct military conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran will have dire consequences for the neighboringcountries. A direct military confrontation might not be a planned one, but it will be fueled due to the intervention of the other key partners, who seek to sought and serve their personal and national intrigues. Most importantly middle east cannot afford a conflict as it is a commercial hub for the world. The recent skirmishes in Iraq sparked fears of wider war when Iraq retaliated for killings of QassimSoleimani. If the US president had not extended an olive branch, the situation might have worsened. The OIC, which is a coalition of 57 Muslim countries has also failed in bringing measures to deescalate the growing tensions. The OIC, where the Saudi Arabia enjoys an authoritarian style of dominance has always tried to empower her own ideology while rising the catch cry of being a sacred country to all the Muslims. Taking in account, the high tensions and ideological and the quest for religious dominance, the international communities such as UN and neighboring countries should play a positiveand vital role in deescalating these tensions. Bilateral trade, communications between the two adversaries with a regional power playing the role of mediator and extending an olive branch to each other will yield better results and will prove fruitful in mitigating the conflict if not totally subverting it.

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First Aid: How Russia and the West Can Help Syrians in Idlib

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Authors: Andrey Kortunov and Julien Barnes-Dacey*

The next international showdown on Syria is quickly coming into view. After ten years of conflict, Bashar al-Assad may have won the war, but much is left to be done to win the peace. This is nowhere more so than in the province of Idlib, which is home to nearly 3 million people who now live under the control of extremist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) with external Turkish protection and humanitarian assistance from the United Nations.

The question of humanitarian access into Idlib is now emerging as a central focus of new international politicking. In so doing, this small province could be pivotal to the future of the larger stalemate that has left the United States, Europe, and Russia locked in an unwinnable status quo.

Russia has said that it plans to veto an extension of cross-border UN aid delivered from Turkey, authorised under UN Security Council resolution 2533, which is up for renewal in July, potentially depriving the population of a vital lifeline amid desperate conditions. Moscow says that all aid should be channelled from Damascus via three new government-controlled crossing points to the northern province. Western governments, to say nothing of the local population, are sceptical, given the Syrian government’s hostility towards the province’s inhabitants. For its part, the UN says that cross-lines aid cannot compensate for a closure of cross-border access.

As ever, the two dominant players—the US and Russia—are talking past each other and are focused on countering each other’s moves—to their mutual failure. It is evident that US condemnation and pressure on Russia will not deliver the necessary aid, and also evident that Russia will not get its wish for the international recognition of the legitimacy of the Syrian government by vetoing cross-border access. While these will only be diplomatic failures for the US and Russia, it is the Syrian people who will, as ever, pay the highest price.

But a mutually beneficial solution to Idlib is still possible. Russia and the US, backed by European states, should agree to a new formula whereby Moscow greenlights a final one-year extension of cross-border aid in exchange for a Western agreement to increase aid flows via Damascus, including through Russia’s proposed cross-lines channels into Idlib. This would meet the interests of both sides, allowing immediate humanitarian needs to be met on the ground as desired by the West, while also paving the way for a transition towards the Damascus-centred international aid operation sought by Moscow.

This imperfect but practical compromise would mean more than a positive change in the humanitarian situation in Idlib. It would demonstrate the ability of Russian and Western actors to work together to reach specific agreements in Syria even if their respective approaches to the wider conflict differ significantly. This could serve to reactivate the UN Security Council mechanism, which has been paralysed and absent from the Syrian track for too long.

To be sure the Syrian government will also need to be incentivised to comply. Western governments will need to be willing to increase humanitarian and early recovery support to other parts of government-controlled Syria even as they channel aid to Idlib. With the country now experiencing a dramatic economic implosion, this could serve as a welcome reprieve to Damascus. It would also meet Western interests in not seeing a full state collapse and worsening humanitarian tragedy.

The underlying condition for this increased aid will need to be transparency and access to ensure that assistance is actually delivered to those in need. The West and Russia will need to work on implementing a viable monitoring mechanism for aid flows channelled via Damascus. This will give Moscow an opportunity to push the Syrian regime harder on matters of corruption and mismanagement.

For its part, the West will need to work with Moscow to exercise pressure on Ankara to use its military presence in Idlib to more comprehensively confront radical Islamists and ensure that aid flows do not empower HTS. A ‘deradicalisation’ of Idlib will need to take the form of a detailed roadmap, including that HTS comply with specific behaviour related to humanitarian deliveries.

Ultimately this proposal will not be wholly satisfactory to either Moscow or the West. The West will not like that it is only a one-year extension and will not like the shift towards Damascus. Russia will not like that it is an extension at all. But for all sides the benefits should outweigh the downsides.

Russia will know that Western actors will respond to failure by unilaterally channelling non-UN legitimised aid into the country via Turkey. Russia will lose the opportunity to slowly move Idlib back into Damascus’s orbit and the country’s de facto partition will be entrenched. This outcome is also likely to lead to increased instability as aid flows decrease, with subsequent tensions between Moscow’s allies, Damascus and Ankara.

The West will need to acknowledge that this approach offers the best way of delivering ongoing aid into Idlib and securing greater transparency on wider support across Syria. The alternative—bilateral cross-border support—will not sufficiently meet needs on the ground, will place even greater responsibility on Turkey, and will increase the prospect of Western confrontation with Russia and the Syrian regime.

Importantly, this proposal could also create space for wider political talks on Idlib’s fate. It could lead to a renewed track between Russia, the US, Turkey and Europeans to address the province’s fate in a way that accounts for Syria’s territorial integrity and state sovereignty on the one hand and the needs and security of the local population on the other hand. After ten years of devastating conflict, a humanitarian compromise in Idlib will not represent a huge victory. But a limited agreement could still go a long way to positively changing the momentum in Syria and opening up a pathway for much-needed international cooperation.

* Julien Barnes-Dacey, Middle East and North Africa Programme Director, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)

From our partner RIAC

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