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Syrian Idlib: What’s Next?

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In October 2020, as the media reported Russia’s Aerospace forces resuming their strikes against the local armed opposition, Turkey relocating its observation posts, and Syrian militants fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh, the global community once again turned its attention to the events in Idlib. It is important to consider possible development scenarios in the light of both Idlib’s distinctive features and of those characteristics it has in common with other territories not controlled by the Syrian authorities, in the light of the balance of power within the Idlib “pocket”, in the light of the interests Turkey and other external forces have there, and in the light of modalities of military or peaceful settlement and Moscow’s actions.

Is Idlib a “Unique Rebellious Province”?

At first glance, like the territory of the Kurds’ Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), Idlib seems to have formed a military conflict economy existing in parallel with the official Syrian economy controlled by the Syrian government. Unlike the oil-rich Kurdish regions, which are also Syria’s “breadbasket”, however, Idlib has no natural resources at all. Before the war, Idlib was a poorly developed province working in traditional agriculture, mostly olive-growing. Consequently, compared to the AANES, Idlib was far more vulnerable to the actions of external actors and Damascus’s ambitious plans to use force to restore Syria’s territorial integrity. Not only did Idlib fail to become a successful project of the Syrian opposition (which could not but fail for objective reasons), it became hostage to foreign aid.

Like Syria in general, Idlib shows signs of a humanitarian crisis. While the 2004 census put Idlib’s population at a little over 1,258,000, as of August 7, 2020, the local population swelled to 4.1 million, 2.7 million of them internally displaced persons from other governorates and 2.8 million of them in need of food and medications (reported by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs). Another mass exodus of non-combatants into Idlib took place following the Syrian Arab Army’s (SAA) successful offensive in December 2019 – March 2020. Since foreign aid is politicised (see, for instance, the highly publicised story of American and British NGOs halting deliveries of humanitarian aid from Turkey through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing in September 2018 in an attempt to strip Idlib radicals of their benefits), it is easy to predict that an “overnight” change of the status quo in favour of Damascus will result in restricting donor aid and, as a consequence, in a humanitarian disaster.

Idlib became a “pocket” for the opposition “squeezed” between areas liberated by the SAA and Turkey. At the same time, unlike the security zone in the North, which is de jure governed by the “Syrian provisional government” but is de facto controlled by Ankara, in Idlib, much to the Turks’ displeasure, the key role is still played not by the militants from the National Front for the Liberation of Syria (NFL) loyal to Turkey, but by the recalcitrant jihadists from Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) (banned in Russia as a terrorist organisation), which previously had ties with Al-Qaeda (also banned in Russia as a terrorist organisation).

Local reconciliations (or pacifications) in Idlib appeared impossible in principle: this region had absorbed intransigent opposition members from the South of Syria and from the Damascus region, and they had nowhere to go since Turkey had always been set against letting unpredictable radicals on to its own territory. Idlib jihadists flatly rejected reconciliation with the Syrian authorities, admitting only that civilians had been forced to take part, but they never agreed to such participation on the part of their comrades-in-arms, whom they spitefully dubbed “frogs” for their willingness to defect to the government camp. The situation began to change a relatively short time ago when radical groups left Idlib for conflict-riven Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh. This situation prompted intensified internationalisation of the “Idlib dossier”, while it also meant that further developments were volatile and had an element of chance to them. Heightened internationalisation is also due to the maximum number of external actors turning their attention to the Idlib “pocket”. Idlib alone remains a matter of concern for China in Syria since there are Uighur radicals from the Turkistan Islamic Party in the West of the governorate.

The “Layer Cake” of the Armed Opposition: Radicals and “Businessmen”

Taking as our axiom that any way out of the Idlib impasse is going to be difficult, we should say a few words about local armed groups and management of the Idlib economy, since both factors can shed some light on certain promising settlement modalities.

Initially, Idlib’s administrative system was based on the decentralisation principle, which is reminiscent of the autonomous architecture of the local authorities in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan). 144 municipal councils were formed, offering a wide range of services from managing bakeries to maintaining roads and collecting rubbish. They had the signal status of direct recipients of foreign aid. As one humanitarian worker quipped, “If [in Idlib – I.M.] you’re not a guy with a gun … then your connection to power is through [humanitarian – I.M.] assistance”. So Idlib’s decentralisation is really different from the governance system established in the Kurdish region in that the former is excessively dependent on foreign support while having no economic programme of its own and no transparency.

The situation in Idlib is characterised by the dominance of local economic heavies combined with the people’s wariness when it comes to introducing an Islamic way of life (Sharia), which prompted the ideologues of the An-Nusra Front (banned in Russia as a terrorist organisation) after seizing the provincial centre in March 2015 to refrain from following the example of ISIS (banned in Russia as a terrorist organisation), so, instead of proclaiming an Islamic “Emirate”, they opted for more flexible tactics. They proclaimed their desire to take various interests into account without permitting violations. At the same time, the principle of “invitation” or “Islamic messianism” entailed ideological indoctrination of the population through face-to-face, in-person communication and public condemnation campaigns against smoking and wearing secular clothes.

The ideologues of the HTS that took over from an-Nusra consolidated their military control over Idlib in January 2019 and remained pragmatic. HTS leader Abu Mohammad al-Julani said that their priority was to preserve a single secular administration in Idlib, referring to the umbrella Syrian Salvation Government (SSG) founded on November 2, 2017; it consisted of both HTS supporters and independent technocrats. Despite the hardliners from Egypt and Jordan, HTS warlords from among the Syrians began to position themselves as businessmen viewing control over Idlib as an economic project (while, in reality, it is a means for personal enrichment).

The negative aspect of the HTS “commercialisation” consisted in attempts to take over transit trade crossing the border at Bab al-Hawa and deliveries of Turkish oil by the monopolist company Watad Petroleum. On May 11, 2017, the HTS announced it was establishing the Public Institution for Monetary Regulation and Consumer Rights Protection charged with monitoring financial transactions. Most such transactions were based on hawal principles (a trust-based system of informal payments between brokers and traders) and were carried out through the local monetary financial “hub”, the town of Sarmadam which is in the immediate vicinity of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing.

The HTS’s claims to economic dominance repeatedly prompted countermeasures by Idlib’s heavies, who used the discontent of the local populace with their low quality of life. In October-November 2019, they managed to bring protesters to the streets demanding that both the SSG and Abu Mohammad al-Julani resign. Although the protesters’ demand for a “government” reshuffle were met, HTS militants took by assault the town of Kafr Takharim, whose residents refused to pay the tax on manufacturing olive oil. The Covid-19 pandemic became yet another challenge: although the HTS supported the lockdown measures imposed by the SSG, many rank-and-file militants refused to obey and continued their Friday prayers, which make it impossible to maintain social distancing.

What is Idlib for Turkey: A Red Line or a Pawn in a Big Game?

Ensuring the security of Turkey’s southern borders and countering Kurdish separatism have been and remain Turkey’s unconditional priorities. In that sense, retaining control over the security zone in the North and preventing Syrian Kurds from a military retaliation are clearly more important than Turkey’s presence in Idlib: should need be, Turkey is ready to make concessions over the governorate in exchange for boosting Ankara’s positions in the North and pushing Kurdish self-defence units away from the border.

Does this mean that Turkey is already prepared to sacrifice Idlib? Certainly not, and Operation Spring Shield proves it: on February 27 – March 6, 2020, the Turkish military put a stop to a local SAA offensive and subsequently increased its forces in Syria. Foreign experts believe that, between February 2 and October 21, 2020, Turkey moved 10,615 units of military equipment and military vehicles to Idlib. Given its domestic economic difficulties related to the Covid-19 pandemic, Turkey is not prepared to take in new waves of Idlib refugees if Damascus gains a rapid military victory. This is especially true since those refugees could include intractable jihadists capable of causing a wave of terror attacks in Turkey itself; the best-case scenario for Ankara is to transfer those people to various hotbeds of unrest (such as Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh).

Turkey’s apparent determination in Idlib is motivated to some degree by its desire to maintain what Russian columnists have dubbed “opposition conservation areas” in Syria. Tying those opposition forces to Turkey by economic means (against the backdrop of the US Caesar Act, the Turkish lira has replaced the Syrian pound in the security zone in the Syrian North and in Idlib), in its bargaining with Damascus, Moscow and Tehran on Syria’s future political makeup, Turkey’s leadership is banking on the “trump card of rebellious territories”. Information about Turkey’s efforts to form an alliance in Idlib that would include the “Syrian Corps” and other NFL elements, as well as “constructive” ones from the HTS has been leaked on a website with ties to the Syrian opposition, and this information should be considered in the same context.

Finally, Turkey’s leadership and Erdogan himself increasingly view the “Idlib question” through the lens of a difficult dialogue with Russia on the Libyan and Nagorno-Karabakh conflicts (on October 25, Russia’s Aerospace Force delivered a strike against the Syrian Corps militants in Idlib, which Russian media dubbed “Bakh for Karabakh”[1]). Turkey has started relocating eight military observation posts in Idlib, as those posts had been blocked in an SAA-liberated area (the post in Murek was evacuated on October 19-20, 2020), which is not only for security reasons, but also due to Turkey’s desire to avoid a severe confrontation with Moscow in Syria. This would be against Ankara’s interest, given its support for Azerbaijan’s offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh.

To sum up, we can conclude that Idlib remains valuable for Turkey, yet, unlike the security zone in Northern Syria, it cannot be called a “red line” in the architecture of Turkey’s national interests that Ankara intends to protect to the bitter end.

A Military Scenario or a Political Compromise?

We do not discard the hypothetical possibility of the Syrian authorities regaining control of Idlib by military force with the aid from its allies, Russia and Iran, yet this scenario today appears unlikely. It would have highly negative consequences for Syrians themselves, prompting a local humanitarian disaster, chaos and a sharp increase in crime (as happened when the government forces defeated the opposition units in Syria’s South in the summer of 2018), and even forcing disjointed terrorist groups to flee to other districts in Syria.

The preferable scenario for settling the Idlib problem appears to be a compromise, in essence, pacification adapted to the local specifics. The scenario is to be based on the four “Ds”:

deradicalisation of the opposition, (primarily HTS): this is possible once intransigent and “professional” militants, mostly foreign ones, withdraw from Idlib; this is the common point in the interests of foreign actors;

deideologisation of the regional elite: this entails moving away from the ideas of Jihadism in favour of implementing a consensus programme for socioeconomic development, with both local interest groups and technocrats involved;

demilitarisation of the Idlib zone: post-conflict integration of former militants into territorial law enforcement and municipal bodies;

decentralisation: granting Idlib a special transitional status within a unified Syria.

In practice, this could imply adopting a separate socioeconomic programme for rebuilding Idlib, involving international financing and creating the conditions for vertically integrating the regional into the pan-national elite following disbandment of the Syrian Salvation Government.

Russia’s Role in Resolving the Idlib Problem

As a leading external actor in the Syrian conflict, Russia has the ability to now contribute to bringing a peaceful settlement closer in Idlib by 1) pointing the Syrian authorities toward pacification instead of a blitzkrieg; 2) advancing, jointly with Turkey among other actors, the involvement of the regional elite in the inclusive Syrian peaceful process; 3) continuing its military support for Syria’s government forces to prevent provocations by Idlib radicals intended to undermine the prospects for a peaceful settlement.

1. This is a pun that resists translation: the last syllable in the word Karabakh, “bakh”, is an onomatopoeic Russian word meaning “kaboom” – translator’s note.

From our partner RIAC

Ph.D. in History, Full State Counsellor of the Russian Federation, 3rd class; Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences; Lecturer at MGIMO University under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation; expert on Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean, RIAC Expert

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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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Iran’s Impunity Will Grow if Evidence of Past Crimes is Fully Destroyed

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No reasonable person would deny the importance of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. But that issue must not be allowed to continue overshadowing Iran’s responsibility for terrorism and systematic human rights violations. These matters represent a much more imminent threat to human life, as well as longstanding denials of justice for those who have suffered from the Iranian regime’s actions in the past.

The Iranian people have risen multiple times in recent years to call for democratic change. In 2017, major uprisings broke out against the regime’s disastrous policies. Although the ruling clerics suppressed those protests, public unrest soon resumed in November 2019. That uprising was even broader in scope and intensity. The regime responded by opening fire on crowds, murdering at least 1,500. Amnesty International has reported on the torture that is still being meted out to participants in the uprising.

Meanwhile, the United Nations and human rights organizations have continued to repeat longstanding calls for increased attention to some of the worst crimes perpetrated by the regime in previous years.

Last year, Amnesty International praised a “momentous breakthrough” when seven UN human rights experts demanded an end to the ongoing cover-up of a massacre of political prisoners in the summer of 1988.

The killings were ordered by the regime’s previous supreme leader Khomeini, who declared that opponents of the theocracy were “enemies of God” and thus subject to summary executions. In response, prisons throughout Iran convened “death commissions” that were tasked with interrogating political prisoners over their views. Those who rejected the regime’s fundamentalist interpretation of Islam were hanged, often in groups, and their bodies were dumped mostly in mass graves, the locations of which were held secret.

In the end, at least 30,000 political prisoners were massacred. The regime has been trying hard to erase the record of its crimes, including the mass graves. Its cover-up has unfortunately been enabled to some degree by the persistent lack of a coordinated international response to the situation – a failure that was acknowledged in the UN experts’ letter.

The letter noted that although the systematic executions had been referenced in a 1988 UN resolution on Iran’s human rights record, none of the relevant entities within that international body followed up on the case, and the massacre went unpunished and underreported.

For nearly three decades, the regime enforced silence regarding any public discussion of the killings, before this was challenged in 2016 by the leak of an audio recording that featured contemporary officials discussing the 1988 massacre. Regime officials, like then-Minister of Justice Mostafa Pourmohammadi, told state media that they were proud of committing the killings.

Today, the main victims of that massacre, the principal opposition Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), are still targets of terrorist plots on Western soil, instigated by the Iranian regime. The most significant of these in recent years was the plot to bomb a gathering organized near Paris in 2018 by the MEK’s parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). The Free Iran rally was attended by tens of thousands of Iranian expatriates from throughout the world, as well as hundreds of political dignitaries, and if the attack had not been prevented by law enforcement, it would have no doubt been among the worst terrorist attacks in recent European history.

The mastermind of that attack was a high-ranking Iranian diplomat named Assadollah Assadi. He was convicted in a Belgian court alongside three co-conspirators in February. But serious critics of the Iranian regime have insisted that accountability must not stop here.

If Tehran believes it has gotten away with the 1988 massacre, one of the worst crimes against humanity from the late 20th century, it can also get away with threatening the West and killing protesters by the hundreds. The ongoing destruction of mass graves demonstrates the regime’s understanding that it has not truly gotten away with the massacre as long as evidence remains to be exposed.

The evidence of mass graves has been tentatively identified in at least 36 different cities, but a number of those sites have since been covered by pavement and large structures. There are also signs that this development has accelerated in recent years as awareness of the massacre has gradually expanded. Unfortunately, the destruction currently threatens to outpace the campaign for accountability, and it is up to the United Nations and its leading member states to accelerate that campaign and halt the regime’s destruction of evidence.

If this does not happen and the 1988 massacre is consigned to history before anyone has been brought to justice, it will be difficult to compel Tehran into taking its critics seriously about anything, be it more recent human rights violations, ongoing terrorist threats, or even the nuclear program that authorities have been advancing in spite of the Western conciliation that underlay 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

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