Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Syria, intervention, and the limits of wargaming

Today’s PAXsims post is something that I’ve been meaning to write about in a general way for a while, but is triggered this week by the confluence of several events. The first was a question raised by Michael Peck on the milgames email list, in which he asked how policy planners might usefully wargame the current civil war in Syria and the political and military complexities of possible external intervention. The second was a presentation by Stephen Downes-Martin at the recent Connections conference which focused, in part, on the ethics of wargame design, coupled with a follow-up point that he made in a comment on the Wargaming Connection blog about knowing the limits of our craft. Third, the Saban Center at Brookings has just released a report on a recent policy game they conducted on Syria, entitled “Unravelling the Syria Mess: A Crisis Simulation of Spillover from the Syrian Civil War.” Finally, I’ve been spending much of the week working on Syria-related research.

My answer to Michael’s question about wargaming Syria was fairly straightforward: while I felt that gaming could offer insight into the military challenges of intervention in Syria, I didn’t think it had much to offer in exploring the possible first, second, and third order political effects of intervention in such a complex and dynamic environment—especially given how many “known and unknown unknowns” lurk in the situation there. On the contrary, if I wanted to illuminate the Syria question I would prefer to do it through a workshop or well-run BOGSAT  (“bunch of guys/gals sitting around a table”) discussion, with a team of participants and moderators who knew how to move the discussion along in interesting and thought-provoking ways.

The advantages of this are two-fold, I think. First, a wargame usually (although not always) embeds a single model of a situation, and unless there are opportunities for multiple plays (a rarity in policy games) there is little  scope to explore a variety of possible relationships between key elements of the scenario. A workshop or BOGSAT discussion, on the other hand, allows you to unpack critical assumptions, debate them, consider alternatives, and talk through the policy implications of all that. This is especially important in a case where there is genuine disagreement about the causal processes and relationships at work. Such a discussion can also be very agile, allowing you to rapidly explore new directions when interesting ideas are put forward. That can be much more difficult to do in a wargame, especially the heavily-scripted three-move seminar games of the sort that often predominate in policy settings.

The report of the Syria wargame undertaken at Brookings, unfortunately, rather illustrates my point. The report itself is rather badly done: it isn’t at all clear how large the teams were, how they were formed, how much experience and expertise they had, what range of policy options they considered (or were allowed to considered), or how the white cell and game adjudication operated. The write-up itself is also extraordinarily vague in recounting who actually did what, when, and with what effects. Even the initial scenario is poorly described, as are any injects that might have been introduced during the game. Only three actors were represented by active players in the crisis game: the US, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. The Syrian government wasn’t represented, nor were the many Syrian opposition actors. With no Syrian actors represented, it isn’t clear that any creative countermoves were taken by Damascus to deter or offset the creeping  intervention that took place in the game, nor that the locals could act to manipulate foreign engagement to their own local advantage. Many of the games findings seem to be self-evident, and hardly needed multiple players to give up a day to identify. The game report notes, for example, that Turkey is important in what happens in Syria—a fact that ought to be evident to anyone who has read the news, or who can even read a map.

Even more serious than this, however, is the extent to which many of the “findings” of the game seem to be as much presuppositions of the game model as they are actual findings. For example, the report notes:

Nevertheless, despite Turkey’s significance, American power still went a long way. For instance, the Saudi team evinced interest in the battles for the arms‐ supply routes through Lebanon which the scenario depicted as escalating—and in the deteriorating situation in Lebanon more generally. But the Saudi team again found itself relatively unable to explore options there without support from the U.S. team. The Saudi team also considered working with Jordan as an alternative (or supplement) to Turkey, but the other teams (principally the U.S. team) showed little interest in pursuing the feasibility of that option.

The paragraph, and the game, presumes that there are “battles for the arms supply routes in Lebanon.” It isn’t clear what exactly that means, nor does it sound especially realistic to me. The report also suggests the game was configured in such a way that the Saudis couldn’t influence events in Lebanon without US assistance—which I also think is fundamentally wrong.

To take another example:

…the Saudi team found that Saudi Arabia had only a modest impact on events in Syria itself, and made little headway with either the American or Turkish teams until the Americans and Turks had decided on their own—and for reasons having nothing to do with Saudi efforts—to intervene in Syria. At that point, Saudi/Arab help became extremely useful, but even then it was not decisive: the American and Turkish teams had made up their minds to do so based on their own interests, and would have intervened (and felt they could have intervened) with or without Arab support, although the Arab support was certainly welcome.

Potentially, Saudi and Gulf influence on events in Syria is (I would argue) much greater than the report, and the crisis game model, seem to suggest—especially regarding financial and material support to the Syrian opposition.

Overall, one gets the sense that the game was rigged to tilt the process towards certain policy conclusions, either because of the policy preferences of the game sponsors and designers or because of the particular worldview that it was built on.

In his comments at Wargaming Connection, Stephen warns of the dangers of “trying to sell war gaming as a solution when other solutions might be better.”  He’s right, of course. It is often the case that a wargame or policy game is not the best way of exploring an issue; indeed, I would argue that it is very often not the best way of exploring complex political issues.

On the other hand, if (say) you’re a think tank in Washington and you want to (say) influence policy on Syria, running a game and putting “crisis simulation” in the title of your report is one way of making it seem somehow more weighty and special. It is, after all a crisis—you know, important and urgent—and a simulation—which, of course, must mean that it bears some relationship to reality. Which means it’s got to be correct, right?


7 responses to “Syria, intervention, and the limits of wargaming

  1. Devin H Ellis 31/08/2012 at 2:19 pm

    This is a real shame. We’ve run crisis simulations for other shops in Brookings before, and it gives me heartburn to watch Saban spend so much money on such a mediocre product.

  2. Bill Haggart 12/08/2012 at 11:07 pm

    “In his comments at Wargaming Connection, Stephen warns of the dangers of “trying to sell war gaming as a solution when other solutions might be better.” He’s right, of course. It is often the case that a wargame or policy game is not the best way of exploring an issue; indeed, I would argue that it is very often not the best way of exploring complex political issues.”

    Having read the Syria report, It seems that 1. the fact that a simulation is basicially closed system, garbage in, garbage out, and because of that, 2. any predictive power will also be limited by the initial assumptions, escapes folks at times.What is probably the weakest or at least most controversial ability of a simulation, to predict or anticipate the future, is the one with the given the high profile. It’s too bad..

  3. Bill Haggart 12/08/2012 at 10:16 pm

    Mike: Your class simulation sounds fascinating. Who put it together [I’m assuming you, so what design did you use?] and what were the learning objectives in putting it together? Obviously, there was a wide-variety of learning going on…just what were you targeting?

  4. Mike 11/08/2012 at 6:04 am

    I made my Hi3112 class “do” the MENA region for their class sim last year and it came out very realistically – they did their research properly, and the plays they made (in Nov/Dec 2011 in class) reflected what came to happen in the real world in Jan-March 2012. The Russians and Chinese blocked the very little the western players wanted to do – one of the students playing China wrote long statements which said precisely nothing – while they all resisted injects which offered excuses for more active intervention. Drop mortars on the Russian naval base – no reaction, lose some aid workers in Northern Syria – no reaction. Meanwhile, students playing other actors across the region happily let the P5 make the non-running (apart from the Somali Fundamentalist player who accused the west of undermining the economy by destroying the local fishing industry with their “so called anti-piracy actions”)

    I was pleased they managed to grasp the limits of diplomatic action, and presaged the following months reasonably well, but a bit sad at how well they grasped the essential cynicism of diplomacy. I thought it was striking that if you get the right bunch of college student’s in a game, you can probably produce outcomes that reflect policy options as well as teams of expensive experts. The goal going forward is to find ways to achieve that level of “realism” consistently, and to try and get the students to find sets of actions in the sim which could produce a slightly better result than the real world actors without breaking the “limits of the possible”

  5. Mahmud Naqi (@MahmudNaqi) 10/08/2012 at 10:28 pm

    ^ Now I’m kind of keen on that being featured in a sequel to the new Red Dawn. They could change the location to Greece and throwing Syria, Hizbollah & Iran into the mix. Add Greek anarchists with the Muslim Brotherhood and you’d get the coveted Glen Beck endorsement.

    So what situations (and for what type of questions) can War Games give good guidance? simple political questions and military challenges?

  6. Rex Brynen 10/08/2012 at 9:45 pm

    No, I didn’t–I’ll have to include that in the next round-up (I’m falling behind). And on a side note, this part is a bit odd: “Iran, Hezbollah and the Syrian regime built a covert base on the Mediterranean with help from North Korea and tried to send supplies to the base by ship through the Suez Canal.”

  7. brtrain 10/08/2012 at 9:41 pm

    You may have seen this before:
    On a game run in late July by the Asymmetric Warfare Group, and is written by a participant in the game’s grey cell. Refence is made to game system developed by JHU-APL. I also saw mention at the same source of the original discussion setting up for the game that took place in May (link to story is in this article).

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