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Nagorno-Karabakh conflict precipitates a new regional order



As the all-out war between Armenia and Azerbaijan is still under way with no reliable and definitive reports on either side’s achievements, what is becoming clear is that the repercussions of this war will be larger than the casualty count as a new regional framework is developing to deal with the conflict.

The thawing of the frozen conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan has been months in the making. After border skirmishes between Armenia and Azerbaijan in July, Ankara increased its rhetoric against Armenia in August, on the centennial of the Treaty of Sevres, and in the wake of Turkish-Azerbaijani joint military exercises in late July and early August. Subsequently, reports of increased Turkish military support and the transfer of military equipment to Azerbaijan began to circulate.

Speeches at the 75th UN General Assembly by the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan, only days before the start of large-scale military operations on September 27, also foreshadowed the escalation. In their speeches, both Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev used cautioning language: the former aimed at the growing involvement of Turkey, the latter at the lack of diplomatic progress and continued Armenian intransigence.

Since the early 1990s, negotiations for resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict have been deeply entrenched in the OSCE Minsk Process, a Euro-Atlantic framework that also includes Russia and Turkey. However, by many accounts, the Minsk Group has run its course without achieving any tangible results; moreover, there is an increased perception, especially on the part of Azerbaijan, that the Minsk Group is unable or unwilling to provide an effective resolution to the conflict.

The analysis of Russia and Turkey’s official reactions to the escalation provides observers with a sense of how the latest violent thaw might be a prelude to a shift in the framework of the conflict – from a Euro-Atlantic endeavour to a regional one. In that shift, Turkey’s unequivocal support for, and military presence in, Azerbaijan has been met with a relatively passive reaction from Russia, manifested in the form of a call on both sides to restrain from escalating the war – a position that puts the perception that Russia is Armenia’s strategic ally in doubt.

Furthermore, Turkey’s active (albeit seemingly tacit) participation in the conflict in a region that Russia considers to be its back yard can be viewed within the prism of Moscow and Ankara’s gravitation towards a synergy on several foreign policy fronts. Thus, even as Turkey and Russia stand on opposite sides in the Syrian and Libyan civil wars, they have both found some common ground in their mutual distancing from Western political and even military (NATO in the case of Turkey) paradigms. This shift might be explained by Moscow’s attempt to revive the Primakov Doctrine (named after Russian former foreign and Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov), which speculates that Russia should form regional alliances to resist the global hegemony of the US.

Many outsiders are taking the view that the thawing of the frozen conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh is a new chapter in the age-old proxy war between Moscow and Ankara in the Caucasus. Yet, upon closer examination, it appears that both sides are using this renewed conflict to work together to exert influence in the region while excluding Western powers.

The paradox of the Turkish-Russian love-hate relationship was most obvious when in November 2015 Turkish jet fighters shot down a Russian warplane over Turkey’s border with Syria. Instead of being used by Moscow to escalate tensions with Ankara, the incident was translated into increased Russian bombardment of Turkey’s Syrian allies; and by mid-2016, it had ostensibly been forgotten, as the two countries announced the reset of their relations. By 2019, Turkish-Russian relations were amicable enough for the two countries to sign a military cooperation agreement paving the way for Ankara to buy Russian-made surface-to-air missiles.

Other than their combined suspicion of and adversarial posture towards the West, both Russia and Turkey have taken advantage of several developments in the past couple of years to increase their cooperation, especially in the South Caucasus. Thus, the increased isolationism of US foreign policy and a lack of interest by European countries in the region, coupled with the global COVID-19 pandemic’s shifting of most countries’ attention on domestic public health concerns, have all provided an opportunity for Russia and Turkey to “hijack” the Nagorno-Karabakh dossier from the Minsk Process and convert it into a regional endeavour.

The implications of shifting the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict from the multilateral OSCE Minsk Group’s framework to a Russian-Turkish regional one (with an Iranian role possible but as yet unclear) could have major and lasting consequences. In this context, Russia’s continued “wait and see” approach might pay off when both Armenia and Azerbaijan find themselves in a military impasse, even if both sides claim some variation of “victory”.

In such a scenario, Russia would utilise its various levers against both Armenia and Azerbaijan to ensure they accept a Russian-imposed ceasefire with a high probability of Russian peacekeepers being deployed on the line of contact. Perhaps the first step towards this goal is Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s announcement (four days after the fighting started) that Moscow is ready to host both Armenia and Azerbaijan to discuss the possible settlement of the conflict “independently as well as within OSCE Minsk group”.

From Turkey’s perspective, Ankara’s “spoils” from the recent conflict and the possible Russian unilateral/regional diplomacy to resolve the conflict can be two-fold: a claim of military and diplomatic victory by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and more importantly, the strengthening of Turkey’s “mentorship” over Azerbaijan.

Despite the UN Security Council calls on September 29 for containing the conflict and continuing its mediation within the OSCE framework, it has become obvious that the Minsk Process is no longer a viable option for the actors involved in the conflict – especially Azerbaijan.

With no end in sight to the military operations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the possible shift of this conflict from a multilateral framework (OSCE Minsk Group) to a regional one (Russian-Turkish-Iranian) is indicative that both Russia and Turkey do not consider the West a relevant player in their back yard. Whether by choice or by accidental convergence, the two regional powers are ready to define and implement their own security strategies in the South Caucasus bilaterally, with only token, half-hearted objections from the West.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.


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Palm oil peril: Is your peanut butter putting primates at risk?



It is tricky to know what we as individuals can do to best help in beleaguered environmental times. We might switch off the lights more often or consider our fashion sources, but it can feel like a meagre and perhaps pointless contribution, wrong though that may be.

Food brings it home. If you sit at the dining table and think of the direct link between that bit of toast slathered in peanut butter, and an endangered species pushed to the brink by deforestation, all becomes a little clearer. This is no anti-spread diatribe but a call to arms to carefully consider what we eat.

The connection is palm oil and it ain’t a pretty picture. Palm oil is in a whole load of products from Oreos to shampoo, lipstick to ice cream, cookies to – yes – peanut butter.

We cook in it, bathe in it, and even brush our teeth in it. Experts say it is found in 50 percent of products on our grocery shelves.

The lone ape

But palm oil production has destroyed huge swaths of virgin rainforest, especially in Indonesia. Meanwhile, species, like the orangutan, are pushed to the brink of extinction.

There was a sobering sequence in the latest film by the British naturalist David Attenborough where a lone orangutan is seen clinging to a single branchless trunk amid an endless battlefield of fallen trees. The trees were felled for palm oil production.

In this 2017 photo, an orangutan sits on the branch of a tree before being rescued and relocated from a swath of destructed forest near a palm oil plantation at Tripa peat swamp in Aceh province, Indonesia. As demand for palm oil soars, plantations expand and companies drain the swamp, clear the forest of its native trees, and often set illegal fires which in turn robs orangutans and other endangered species of their natural habitats [AP/Binsar Bakkara]

Acrobats of the jungle

Of course, it is not just flagship species like the orangutan under threat. Here is a shout out for the singing, swinging ape, the brilliant acrobat of the trees, the animal we think of when we picture primates swinging gracefully through the canopy – the good old gibbon.

When gibbons walk, either on branches or on the ground, they often do so on two feet. Being the most bipedal of all non-human primates, they are regularly studied for clues about the process of evolution that led to us walking.

And yes, they sing with extraordinary vocal tones apparently ranging, as one anthropologist put it, from haunting Japanese flute to blaring police siren.

But gibbons are in deep trouble. They are among the most threatened primates on Earth. And like the orangutan and myriad other rainforest species in Southeast Asia, this is primarily because of palm oil.

Next to humans, gibbons are the most bipedal of all primates [File: Reuters/Leonhard Foeger]

According to the Gibbon Conservation Alliance, the endangered Silvery gibbon, which is only found on the island of Java in Indonesia, has lost 98 percent of its habitat.

In Borneo, habitat loss has been dramatic too: Huge swaths of trees burned to the ground to make way for palm oil plantations.

“The fires which ravaged Borneo in 2015 resulted in significant loss of forest,” said Dr Susan Cheyne of the Borneo Nature Foundation (BNF). “We estimate around 15 percent was lost and bear in mind only 50 percent of the whole island of Borneo remains forested.”

BNF works to reforest degraded areas damaged by fire to help restore habitats for gibbons and other animals. It is also an advocate of deforestation-free palm oil – sustainable palm oil which is grown without causing more deforestation.

Dr Cheyne said the market for palm oil is vast. “Consumers need to be more aware about what they are buying but food companies need to work to provide clear information to consumers about what is in their products.”

A worker harvests palm fruit at a plantation in Indonesia, which is the world’s largest palm oil producer [File: Reuters]

‘There’s a Rang-Tan in my bedroom’

This video below, that went viral in 2018, puts it better than any words can. It is an emotive advertisement from a Greenpeace campaign featuring a homeless orangutan.

Watch and consider the peanut butter options.

[embedded content]

Your environment round-up

1. Delayed Arctic freezing: Scientists are concerned that for the first time in recorded history, the Laptev Sea has yet to start freezing by this stage in late October. The delay – partly caused by unusually warm temperatures this year – could have knock-on effects for the region.

2. Cooling paint: A new kind of white paint that reflects 95.5 percent of sunlight could help cool buildings, decreasing the reliance on air conditioning which adds to global CO2 emissions.

3. Watch: Climate concerned?: From extreme winds to floods, drought and fire, the US has witnessed extreme weather events this year. Now, public opinion towards the climate crisis may finally be changing.

4. Listen: Acoustic ecology: Scientists have found signs of climate change in nature’s symphonies, and they are racing to record the soundscapes before they disappear.

The final word

A nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself. Forests are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people.

Franklin D Roosevelt, 32nd US president


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PrettyLittleThing features its first model to wear a hijab



Written by Alaa Elassar, CNN

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A Black, Muslim plus-size model is breaking barriers in the fashion industry after being chosen by PrettyLittleThing to model its new line of modest clothing.

Billy Marsal, 21, is a London-based influencer who regularly posts photos of herself wearing trendy and modest outfits on Instagram. The online retail giant scouted her on social media shortly after entering the Middle East market.

Marsal’s work with PrettyLittleThing marks the first time the brand has featured a model wearing a hijab or headscarf, the UK-based company confirmed.

“I didn’t realize how big of a deal it was until I started getting replies and messages from people who were so excited about it, then I realized, wow, this is amazing,” Marsal told CNN.

“It’s an insane feeling, Yes, I am Black, I am Muslim, I am plus size, but I never thought it would be me to make people feel like this.”

Marsal is new to the world of professional modeling, but is excited to represent young Muslim women and help them find fashionable clothes that uphold their religious values.

“As girls who wear the hijab, we grew up buying clothes and having to alter things to make them modest so for them now to tell Muslim girls, ‘Guys, we’re catering to you, too’ is a very big deal,” she said.

Marsal announced her work with PrettyLittleThing in a tweet on Monday that has since garnered more than 500,000 likes and 60,000 retweets. “Soooo… that’s me. THE FIRST HIJABI ON PLT!!! Still so wild to me,” she said.

PrettyLittleThing, which has collaborated with celebrities like Kylie Jenner and Hailey Baldwin, sells fashion “inspired from the catwalk and the coolest muses of the moment” at affordable prices.

The retailer aims to “inspire confidence” in customers with a message of equality and body positivity, according to its website.

“Following our successful launch into the Middle East we are delighted to be launching our ‘Modest clothing’ collection on site,” PrettyLittleThing said in a news release. “Our ethos of ‘EveryBODYinPLT is extremely important to us, so it’s been amazing seeing such positive customer feedback and working with models who represent all of our customer base.”

In recent years, models wearing a hijab have been featured in New York Fashion Week and Sports Illustrated magazine. But it’s still not common.

Marsal said she’s happy to see the industry change to include more Muslim women, and looks forward to the day when it’s no longer surprising to see a model wearing a hijab.

“I think what’s going to happen is this will one day be so normal it’s not surprising anymore, because competitors are noticing what brands like PrettyLittleThing are doing and it’s going to become the norm,” she said.


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At least 22 killed in Ghana church collapse



Officials say 11 women, 10 men and a baby died after an under-construction three-storey building collapsed.

At least 22 people, including a baby, were killed when an unfinished three-storey building collapsed in eastern Ghana, emergency officials said on Friday.

The accident happened on Tuesday while a church community held a service in the building, which was still under construction, in the town of Akyem Batabi in the Eastern Region, National Disaster Management Organisation (NADMO) official Richard Amo-Yartey said.

Among the dead are 11 women, a baby and 10 men, Amo-Yartey said.

A rescue team comprising emergency workers, police, soldiers and firefighters were searching for survivors trapped inside the building.

The number of those missing remained unclear on Friday, while eight injured people had been taken to hospital, according to Amo-Yartey.

Local media reported that more than 60 people were present at the site when the accident took place.

Work on the building had started in 1994.


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