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The end of the honeymoon between Iran and Russia in Syria

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Although many years have passed since the end of the Cold War, world powers are competing for hegemony and gaining allies in the Middle East. Perhaps the turning point is the Arab Spring (2011), which has shifted the balance of power in the region between global and regional powers, and then created new rules and actors. Meanwhile, Iran and Russia, as important regional and global actors, sought to reconsider their Middle East policy and find new partners. Now that about 10 years have passed since the Arab crisis, the presence of these actors in Syria continues. But the current situation in the Syrian crisis has created differences between Iran and Russia, which shows that we are seeing changes in some of the policies of these two countries. Now the question is whether Iran and Russia are still cooperating or whether the era of competition and their distance from each other has begun. A question that could be related to Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif’s visit to Russia and Turkey last week. The trip coincided with the implementation of the so-called “Caesar” US sanctions against Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria. However, in addition to putting pressure on the Syrian government, Caesar’s sanctions appear to be putting pressure on the regime’s two main supporters, Iran and Russia, and increasing the cost of the two countries’ presence in Syria.

Cooperation between Iran and Russia in Syria

The start of serious cooperation between Iran and Russia in Syria dates back to 2015, when the Syrian army’s defeat in the Syrian civil war and the fall of Bashar al-Assad seemed likely, in such circumstances, Iran asked Russia for help. Russia’s serious involvement in the Syrian war began in 2015, after the visit of Qassem Soleimani, the former commander of the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards. At the same time, Iran called on Russia to intervene in the Syrian crisis to maintain Bashar al-Assad’s power. Russia’s military intervention in Syria is in fact part of Moscow’s attempt to return to the global geopolitical chessboard as a major power (and an attempt to forge multilateral alliances and a balance between most of the region’s powers); these characteristics are essentially based on pragmatism and political realism. On the other hand, Iran’s presence in Syria was initially accompanied by advisory assistance and then the presence of ground forces to support the Syrian government. These forces included Iranian-backed military forces and paramilitary groups. But the defeat of Assad’s forces required extensive airstrike’s by Russian troops. Russia’s serious presence in Syria began in late September 2015, prompting Russia to work to eliminate threats, such as the American hegemony, separatism, and extremist Islamism. In this regard, Vladimir Putin has embarked on a path of multifaceted diplomacy. Russia has launched a new phase of cooperation with Iran and Syrian forces with airstrike’s against Assad’s opponents in Syria. The attacks coincided with the rise of ISIS forces in Syria. The ground support of Iran and militias from the Syrian army, as well as the air support of the Russian military, led to the successive defeats of Assad’s opponents and the consolidation of his power, Under these circumstances, Iran and Russia were moving in almost the same direction due to common interests, so much so that Russian air forces used the Nojeh air base in Hamadan for their operations in Syria.

Russia’s Disputes with Iran in Syria

Despite good new Iran-Russia relations in the Middle East, Iran remain dependent on Russia’s security support against the perceived threat of regime change by the United States. Given factors such as nuclear development and the strengthening of the military, relations between the two countries are crucial for the future of the Middle East. However, it can be said that the existence of some ideological affinities is a good understanding of the context and depends on the conditions rather than participation in a joint political project or a common strategic plan. They both reject Western policies of promoting regime change and using human rights issues to advance geopolitical goals. This theoretical convergence applies especially in the Syrian case, where both countries reject the prospect of the emergence of a new regime that the Russians fear is pro-Western and the Iranians fear pro-Saudi. Thus, the two countries present themselves as supporters of the status quo and declare that the only advantage of their opponents is to destabilize Syria.

One of the issues of contention between Iran and Russia in Syria is the differing views of Tehran and Moscow on Israel’s security concerns over Iran’s continued presence in Syria. Israel has repeatedly stated that it will not allow Iran to continue its military presence in Syria; Israeli warplanes have repeatedly bombed positions of Iranian forces and their allied militias in Syria; On the other hand, Russia has not used these systems to defend the positions of Iranian forces, while it has advanced anti-aircraft systems in Syria. At this point, their divergence over Israel – Iran sees Israel as its main rival in the region, while Russia has had diplomatic relations with the Jewish state – is not a major factor in their participation. Russia, while even saying that Iran will go to Syria at the invitation of the Syrian government and will leave Syria only with the opinion of Damascus, has called for the full withdrawal of foreign troops from Syria.

“Shiaization” in Syria has also been a source of discord / divergence between Moscow and Tehran. Russia prefers a Sunni return and Iran prefers Shia transfer / export. However, Iran’s sectarian interests are not the most important determinant of its relations with Russia. Their mutual participation as a whole stems from competition between the United States and Russia, as well as tensions between Iran and the United States. Iran is in favor of an alliance with the Lebanese political party, Hezbollah, and Shiite militias, which are mainly made up of Pakistani, Afghan and Iraqi fighters. Russia, on the other hand, wants to maintain Syria’s state institutions and does not support the Shiiteization of some of these military groups, such as Hezbollah and some Shiite militias. Russia seems to have no interest in being a smaller ally of the United States in the war against ISIS, nor does it have any interest in diplomatic efforts to end the civil war in Syria.

Conclusion

The question now is what kind of game Russia is playing with Iran; Cooperation with Iran or competition. Putin is seeking to maintain Russia’s economic and military interests in Syria, so Putin and Assad seem to be preventing Iran from continuing to be present in Syria. The reality is that Assad is more inclined to cooperate more with Moscow. Putin and Assad will set aside, Iran for their own interests and for Netanyahu and Trump; In fact, the Israeli attacks on Iranian positions in Syria and near the Israeli border in the Golan Heights with Russian green lights. The Russian military shut down its S-300 air defense system during Israeli attacks on Iranian positions in Syria, and if the system had worked properly, Israel would not have been able to carry out air strikes on Syrian territory easily. On the one hand, Iran has spent a lot of money in Syria, and these costs cannot be reimbursed; on the other hand, despite US sanctions and maximum US pressure on Iran, Iran cannot spend much in Syria. With the gradual movement of the Syrian civil war to an end, Iran’s continued presence in the country in the long run has also created sensitivities on the part of the Western world and the Gulf states. It seems that the US-Israel-Russia is seeking to form a secret alliance to determine Syria’s future, and it is unlikely that the Syrian government will be reluctant to continue Iran’s presence and influence in the country in the long run, Meanwhile, Syria is more inclined to continue Russia’s presence. Finally, it remains to be seen whether Russia’s military presence in Syria will lead Iran out of Syria, and whether Russia’s cooperation with the United States and Israel will expand.

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Middle East

Assassination of top Iranian Nuclear Scientist: A big Tragedy

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Image source: Wikipedia

On the sad incident of the assassination of a top Iranian nuclear scientist, the UN spokesman said, “We urge restraint and the need to avoid any actions that could lead to an escalation of tensions in the region.” Turkey termed the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh as an ‘act of terrorism’ while the EU calls it ‘criminal’ and urges ‘maximum restraint.’ Anger can be seen in Iran and the region. The whole region is worried and mourning.

Masses are demanding to investigate the assassination act thoroughly and punish the responsibles. It is a straight forward criminal act and a direct threat to Iran’s sovereignty. The whole world is upset and can not forgive.

It was well-known that the US assassinated General Qasim Sulymani in Baghdad just a few ago. The retaliation from Iran was just appropriate, and the US could not digest it yet. Top nuclear Scientist’s assassination is not accepted under any circumstances, and any retaliation will be justice.

Iran has the capability and will to retaliate. Although we all – peace-loving people request Iran to cool down and observe restrains, at the same time, we understand, if the aggressors are not checked, it will happen again and again, and maybe in more intensity and frequency. If the retaliation is severe, then the aggressor may not dare to attempt again in the future. A minimum level of deterrence is required to maintain. Otherwise, further assassinations are encouraged.

The ruthless assassination of Dr. Fakhrizadeh on Friday 27 November is not just ‘another’ routine incident—it’s causality is more significant than it’s aftermath. The Western world engaged Iran under JCPOA in October 2015. Things were smooth, and Iran was in full compliance with the deal. Internation Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was regularly monitoring Iran’s nuclear facilities and confirmed the fullcompliance. All the signatories of JCPOA were also satisfied, except President Trump. Even his administration has not noticed any deviation from Iran, but after having a close presentation from the Israeli prime minister Netanyahu, President scrapped the JCPOA in 2018. The unilateral withdrawal of President Trump from the nuclear deal was widely criticized but was celebrated by Israel. Since then, Iran was under immense pressure from the US as well as Israel.

Highly classified speculations are that the final decision to eliminate Fakhrizadeh was perhaps taken last Sunday 22 November, in a semi-secretive meeting in the Saudi coastal resort of Neom—attended by Mike Pompeo, Benjamin Netanyahu, Yossi Cohen, and Prince MBS.

There are other views that Fakhrizadeh’s assassination is another big conspiracy to destabilize global peace and stability, which might hinder the transition of power to newly elect-president Joe Biden. As a result, President Trump remains in control. Strong possibilities are that the outgoing President Trump will make the most of the power transfer transition period—taking big decisions to please his external partners/friends (Isreal and anti-Iran Arab states). Some say this killing will reduce Iran’s negotiating powers—should Joe Biden/Tony Blinken revive the JCPOA. Some global security pundits comment, this assassination was aimed at infuriating Iran, instigating it to react with military force against Israel, prompting the US and its regional allies (Israel, KSA, UAE, and Bahrain) to declare an all-out direct war on Iran.

It is relatively early to say something precisely, that what happen? How happened? And What will happen next? All are view points, and no authentic opinion is concluded. But one thing is very much clear, the region is a cooked volcano and may burst any moment.

It may destabilize the whole region; the oil-rich region may halt oil supply to the Western world. The Oil prices may shoot up; Industrial growth may be harmed, inflation may hike up, the global economy may suffer adversely.

It is also possible that the Arab and non-Arab Muslim world be divided visibly and further harm the Muslim world. Irrespective of any country or nation, or religion, humankind will suffer at the end of the day. Irrespective of race, religion, ethnicity, we must urge the safety of human lives.

The world community must proactively play a positive role in saving humankind and the loss of precious lives. Bloodshed is not permissible in any religion, society, or law, especially because we claim to be a civilized world and should act as civilized.

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Middle East

Libya: Lights and shadows of the peace process

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After six days of intense closed-door talks between the 75 delegates of the various Libyan factions summoned to Tunis by the Acting Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General (SRSG), Stephanie Williams, the first round of negotiations that ended on November 15 confirmed the “ceasefire”, but failed to reach an agreement on the mechanisms and criteria for selecting the candidates for a new “national unity” government.

Acting SRSG Stephanie Williams has decided to reconvene in the coming days – via video conference – a second round of what has been called the “Libyan Political Dialogue Forum” (LPDF), with the ambition of succeeding in forming a government able to manage the national elections scheduled for December 24, 2021.

While admitting the partial failure of the Tunis talks, the U.S. diplomat declared frankly that it was not “realistically possible to find solutions to a ten-year conflict in a simple round of negotiations”. Nevertheless, Acting SRSG Stephanie Williams has stressed that “there seems to be the possibility of an agreement on three important sensitive aspects of the negotiation, i.e. the tasks and duties of the new government; the criteria for appointing those who will take up the government posts and the roadmap for the peace process.

She added that “Libyan politicians now have the opportunity to effectively occupy centre stage or end up going extinct as dinosaurs”.

Tough words that convey the disappointment for a negotiation that sees the parties involved (the Tripoli government led by Fayez al-Sarraj; the Tobruk faction commanded by General Khalifa Haftar and the Fezzan independent tribes) willing to respect the armed truce, but little inclined to make political concessions to their counterparts.

Certainly it was not easy to make the Libyan stakeholders – who, until last summer, had been fighting one another in open field -converge on a political dialogue path

It was not easy also due to the behind-the-scenes activism of the international sponsors of the opposing factions: Turkey and Qatar in favour of al-Sarraj; Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Egypt and Russia supporting the “Libyan National Army” led by General Haftar, while President Macron’s France is openly siding with the Fezzan tribes.

During the Tunis talks, all delegates systematically leaked to the press fake drafts of possible agreements, in view of thwarting the proposals of their counterparts.

According to “Agenzia Nova”, apparently official documents were circulated containing references to the topics actually under discussion, “polluted” by totally invented parts: “real poisoned drafts received from Libyan sources close to General Haftar”.

 Malicious rumours have also spread about the possible corruption of some delegates, bribed with many dollars to favour the appointment of Abdullh al-Dabaiba -the powerful “warlord” of Misrata and founder of the “Future for Libya” movement – to the new government. It should be recalled that, thanks to Turkish weapons and Islamist mercenaries brought by President Erdogan to Libya from Syria, Misrata’s militias rescued al-Sarraj’s government from collapse when last April General Haftar’s militias had arrived at Tripoli’s gates.

However, despite the difficulties, in her report to the UN Security Council, Acting SRSG Stephanie Williams also highlighted some positive aspects of the situation on the ground.

First of all, the military truce is holding out: there are no significant violations of the “ceasefire”, while “the exchange of prisoners continues, facilitated by the Council of Elders, with the support of the Joint Military Commission.

Another important result has been achieved in the oil sector: with the agreement of all the parties involved, the National Oil Company has resumed oil production in full swing, which has quickly returned to last year’s level of 1.2 million. However, the transparent distribution of oil revenues must be postponed until an agreement is reached between all the parties involved, pending which the National Oil Company shall set aside the proceeds from oil sale in a special UN-controlled account.

This is a sensitive aspect regarding directly Italy: the resumption of crude oil extraction means much for ENI which – albeit left alone by national institutions to operate in the dangerous situation of tension between the opposing Libyan factions – has managed to establish itself as a credible and reliable counterpart and to maintain its extraction, production and refining activities in Libya.

While concluding her briefing to the UN Security Council, Acting SRSG Stephanie Williams underlined: “Seventy-five Libyans came together in Tunis …in a good faith effort to start the process of healing their nation’s wounds. …they extended their hands, if not their hearts, to each other”.  

“Not their hearts”: this is the deepest shadow hanging over the Tunis talks, casting uncertainty over a peace process in which the role of the national players is often influenced and manipulated by the various international sponsors – and the sponsors certainly do not act for “heart” reasons.

On the Tripoli government’s front, the two key allies are President Erdogan’s Turkey and Qatar ruled by young Emir Tamin bin Hamad Al Thani.

Despite the accession of the former to NATO and of the latter to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the two countries have embraced the cause of Muslim extremism by more or less openly supporting jihadist militias during the civil conflicts in Syria, Iraq and, most recently, Libya.

At the side of these awkward travel companions, in a quiet and secluded corner, we can find Italy which, in 2016, with an undoubtedly politically correct move, followed the United Nations, which imposed a neo-colonialist governmental solution on Libya, by establishing al-Sarraj’s “Government of National Accord” (GNA), at first in Tunis and later in Tripoli. A “neo-colonialist” solution because the GNA has not been recognised by any of Tripoli’s and Tobruk’s Parliaments and has never been legitimized by elections or supported by the people.

Over the last four years, while al-Sarraj barely controlled the capital, the Italian diplomacy has not seemed able to find a clear policy and line of action, in a region of vital importance for the country, other than that of “respect for UN resolutions”, a formal pretext used also by the European Union to justify its inaction.

 As said above, faced with Turkey’s and Qatar’s political and military commitment to support al-Sarraj, but above all the Islamist militias of Tripoli and Misrata, the Gulf States have broken diplomatic relations with Qatar, accusing its Emir of an adventurous conduct in favour of the “Muslim Brotherhood” throughout the region.

Furthermore, together with Egypt, France and Russia, the Gulf States have actually established an alliance to protect two of the three Libyan political-military components, i.e. General Haftar’s”Libya Liberation Army” and the militias linked to the Fezzan tribes with whom France has established an almost exclusive partnership.

While the diplomacies interested in the Middle East are playing on several tables – just think of the new relations between the Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and above all Saudi Arabia, with Israel-Italy and Europe – probably also because of the pandemic – seem to be immobilized and bogged down into passive positions of principle on the positive aspects of “multilateralism”.

Indeed. the other countries are taking action also in view of possible political and economic dividends in the future, while Italy and Europe, with their wait-and-see attitude, remain on the sidelines to watch – as mere spectators – the development of events that will have a decisive impact on the new Mediterranean equilibria of the near future.

Nevertheless, there seem to be no good news about U.S. international commitments in the “after-Trump era”.

The new President, Joe Biden, has appointed Antony Blinken as the new Secretary of State.

 Despite his being an educated, cosmopolitan and polite person, we cannot forget that, during Obama’s Presidencies, Blinken was a close aide of Hillary Clinton, at first, and of John Kerry, later, i.e. two negative protagonists of international relations and foreign policy who, with their naïve support for the fake “Arab Springs”, contributed to upset North Africa and the Middle East in the name of a mirage that saw an unattainable goal of Western democracy for the countries experiencing Islamist civil uprisings and unrest.

After having fomented and militarily supported the revolt against Colonel Gaddafi, the U.S. Department of State led by Hillary Clinton, had to face the sacrifice of its ambassador in Libya, Chris Stevens, who was killed on September 11, 2012 in Benghazi, where he had been sent for a confused and botched negotiation with the Islamists of Ansar Al Sharia.

Under Kerry’s leadership, with Blinken at his side as Deputy Secretary of State, the United States managed the Syrian crisis in a politically and militarily unwise manner, thus finally leaving the field open to Russia and Turkey.

Against this backcloth, the prospects for a return to action of U.S. diplomacy (partly put to rest by Donald Trump) are not particularly fascinating, in an area such as Libya where Italy, in its own small way, is not even able to sketch out a credible negotiation for the release of the eighteen fishermen from Mazara del Vallo, kidnapped by General Haftar’s forces for over two months.

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Middle East

Iranian media and Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

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Freedom of the press and the Media are both considered the fundamental pillars of Democracy across the globe.  However, some authoritarian regimes restrict and ban the media and freedom of speech.  These regimes establish and monitor their broadcasting system and media activity. The Iranian regime’s nature is authoritarian and dictatorial, and the country is ruled based on Shiite ideology and Persian nationalism. Security forces, especially the Iran intelligence ministry, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), have a robust interconnection with media. Through cooperation with the Ministry of Culture and Guidance, security agencies can monitor the media and the press.  Undoubtedly, Iran’s state-driven media have to pursue and consider the procedures based on ideological and national interests, focusing on the Shiite religion rules and Persian nationalism. The Iran State Press and media and other foreign opposition news media stood by Armenia and refused to hold a neutral position during the second Nagorno-Karabakh (Internationally recognized as Azerbaijani territory) conflict lasting September 27th to November 10th, 2020.

We first need to analyze why the Iranian media holds discriminatory policy and behavior toward the Republic of Azerbaijan.  One of the main reasons is the large population of Turks who reside in Iran. They live mainly in Northwestern regions whom Turkish activists call South Azerbaijan. It is estimated that approximately 30 percent of Iran’s population is Turkish. Iranian officials assume the potent, rich, and attractive the Republic of Azerbaijan can influence Azerbaijani Turks and reinforce their desire to secession from Iran.  One example is a November video report named the “Nagorno-Karabakh War” and shared by Mashregh News, an analytical website affiliated with IRGC, which served as a pretext for Iran’s disintegration. In October, thousands of Azerbaijan Turks from cities like Tabriz, Ardabil, Zanjan, and Tehran gathered to support Azerbaijan and protested to criticize Iran’s aids in Armenia.  Unfortunately, security forces cracked down on these demonstrations and arrested dozens of protesters. Of course, Iran’s state-run media organizations avoided discussing arrest details of the demonstrations, and some, like the IRIB, went as far as distorted and misrepresented the nature of the protests in favor of the government.  The Iranian media using mostly the Persian language represented and conveyed the sovereign and independent Azerbaijan as the major threat to the religious, totalitarian, and Persian-centered government’s interest and security.

  Another important factor impacting Iranian state media policy against Azerbaijan in the recent battle of Nagorno-Karabakh is Azerbaijan’s strategic relations with Turkey and Israel. Turkey has been a long-time political rival of Iran regionally. This is the reason why Iran will not tolerate the presence of Turkey in the Caucasus. The Iranian media spread misleading news and inaccurate information against Turkey, which mobilized the Jihadi fighters to go to the battlefield of Nagorno-Karabakh.  Naturally, the Iranian media had no supporting evidence to back up their claims in the news. Furthermore, on November 1st, IRIB interviewed Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, in deceptive statements claimed terrorists and possibly Zionists participated in the conflict and diverted the issue to those governments involved.  Since then, the war is now over, and there is still no reliable documents or evidence to support his allegations. Propaganda and hate speech against Israel and Jewish people have been a dominant headline in Iranian media since the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Due to Iran and Israel’s deep hostility, the Iranian government cannot endure Israel’s presence and strong ties with neighboring countries. Recently, the government news agency, Fars News, published an article by Ehsan Movahedian about the economic consequences of the recent peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan on Iran. The author emphasized that Israel’s permanent presence in Iran’s northwest border could be a significant threat for the Islamic Republic and create ethnic tensions. Similarly, on November 17th, Mashregh News posted an article about the second war of Nagorno-Karabakh and its effects on Iran’s geopolitical capacity in the energy sector.  In a similar theme, Ministry of Intelligence expert Ahmad Kazemi claimed that in the second Karabakh War, Turkey’s primary aim, The Republic of Azerbaijan, and Israel was to occupy the 42-kilometer border strip between Iran and Armenia by implementing the exchanging corridors in their plan. Kazemi concluded that opening the transit corridor between Azerbaijan and Nakhichevan is the American and England idea to restrain China, Russia, and Iran in the coming decades, to strengthen the concept of the Great Turan and Pan-Turkism. The transparent distress and concern of Iranian officials and experts reflected in the media indicated the government’s objective to disrupt the November Russian-brokered truce deal between Armenia and Azerbaijan that was signed between 3 countries over the Nagorno-Karabakh. 

Like Iran state media, Iranian overseas opposition media had a similar consensus about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Most of them deliberately distorted and censored the region’s realities and war facts in favor of Armenia in their articles and news. Iranian opposition media such as the BBC Persian, Radio Farda, and Iran International TV describe Nagorno-Karabakh as an Armenian-populated region. They refrain from elaborating on ethnic cleansing, which caused the displacement of one million Azerbaijani people from Karabakh and surrounding areas by Armenian troops during the first war in the 1990s. In the same media, Shusha was announced as an occupied city by Azerbaijan and not as a liberated city. Stemming from their Persian-centric nationalist views, they deem the awakening and empowerment of Northern and Southern Azerbaijanis as a serious threat to national security and unification in Iran.

In most cases, the Iranian media does not analyze events and issues impartially. Comparatively, they evaluated regional problems and national issues influenced by ideological interest and Persian nationalism. In the recent Nagorno-Karabakh battle, the Iranian media supported Armenia by spreading fallacious news and misleading information against Azerbaijan, like Israeli forces’ deployment in Iran’s Northwest border and transferring terrorists to the front lines of the war. Not surprisingly, the media attempted to deceive the public opinion by making accusations to justify Iran’s support for Armenia. Although Iranian Journalists and media activists thought that their anti-Azerbaijani actions would strengthen national security, contrastingly, their destructive activities did not contribute to national unity but instead intensified the ethnic division between Azerbaijani Turks and Persians in Iran. Consequently, with the continuance of the Iranian media’s destructive policies, without considering the Turks’ demands in Iran, maintaining stability, national solidarity, and territorial integrity will be a prominent issue in the future.

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