Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

ISIS Crisis at McGill

The Interuniversity Consortium for Arab and Middle Eastern Studies at McGill University was the latest location for an ISIS Crisis matrix game. The roles and rules were the same as for our recent game at the University of Ottawa. The players this time were largely drawn from graduate and undergraduate students with an interest in the Middle East.


Once again, our primary interest was one of examining this particular game approach as an analytical methodology. Replaying exactly the same game with a different group gave us an opportunity to further map out the strategic decision space—that is, get a fuller sense of player options and responses. It also offered some insight to how idiosyncratic factors, such as player knowledge, personality, and game style, might affect game dynamics and outcomes.

The War in Iraq

At the uOttawa game, the Iraqi government had fallen back on sectarian appeals to mobilize Shiite domestic support for military operations against ISIS and its Sunni allies, hoping to destroy the former and force the latter to negotiate on Baghdad’s terms. In this game, however, the Iraqi government started with a strategy of reaching out to the Sunni opposition, hoping to draw them away from ISIS and into a more inclusive government. They also hoped to recruit predominately Sunni “National Guard” units, and use these to help the largely Shiite Iraqi Army (and the extremist Shiite militias allied with it) to recapture ISIS-controlled areas.

This proved easier to say than to do, however. Iraqi Sunnis were deeply suspicious of Baghdad’s overtures, and worried about the risk of being drawn into a confrontation with ISIS. A reconciliation meeting —held in Oman, because the Sunni opposition was nervous of meeting in Baghdad—collapsed amid acrimony. It didn’t help when Prime Minister Haider al-Abidi promised a relaxation of the de-Bathification laws (a Sunni demand), only to prove unable to muster the necessary parliamentary majority.

ISIS sought to assuage growing Sunni tribal concerns by holding a shura meeting with tribal leaders. That also didn’t go well.

Both the US and Iran were broadly supportive of Baghdad’s strategy. Iran provided significant support for a planned Iraqi offensive to seize Takrit and consolidate control of Highway 1 linking the city with Baghdad via Samarra and Taji. When this offensive was first launched, however, it stalled amid fierce resistance. A second effort some months later was a little more successful.

President Obama finally secured Congressional authorization to use military force (AUMF), and conducted airstrikes against ISIS mobile oil refineries in Syria. (ISIS responded by stepping up its destruction and looting of antiquities.) In Syria, a government offensive pushed opposition forces back from Aleppo, further increasing the pressure on ISIS.

At this point, a local dispute in Ramadi between ISIS gunmen and local tribal militias escalated into open warfare, and the latter were successful in pushing ISIS fighters out of the area altogether. Seeing an opportunity, the US and Iraqi government offered to make Ramadi the nucleus of the new National Guard, with Baghdad also expressing a willingness to discuss some degree of regional autonomy for Sunni areas.

The Kurds spent considerable time trying to secure shipments of heavy weapons from the US or Iran, but neither was willing to provoke Iraqi and Turkish displeasure by doing so. Iran, however, did provide substantial quantities of light and medium weapons for the Peshmerga and for allied Assyrian Christian and Yazidi militias. Armed with these, Kurdish forces launched an offensive towards Mosul. This made some headway, bringing the Kurds to with a few kilometres of the city. However, the Kurds were reluctant to press on alone into the city itself, fearing that its capture could come at a very heavy cost. Sunni opposition leaders also urged them not to.

As tensions between ISIS and its former Sunni allies grew, a tug-of-war developed for the support of the Mosul population. ISIS sent reinforcements to the city, only to have them spotted en route by an Iranian drone and—after this information was urgently relayed via the Iraqi Army—destroyed in a heavy US airstrike. Led by a charismatic local sheikh(a), the Sunni opposition and tribes rallied and finally forced ISIS fighters from the city. Not long after, ISIS forces retaliated in al-Qa’im, driving out other Sunni groups.


At this point, urgent information reached the Iraqi government that serious cracks had begun to appear in Mosul Dam, threatening a catastrophic release of water that would inundate Mosul and flood the Tigris River valley as far as Baghdad. Fortunately, Iraqi engineers were able to stabilize the situation.

The first (Sunni) National Guard unit is formed in Ramadi.

The first (Sunni) National Guard unit is formed in Ramadi.

The game ended with ISIS force having lost its momentum, but still in control of substantial areas of Syria and a diminished portion of Iraq. Trained by American advisors, the first National Guard unit graduated in Ramadi. (ISIS had, however, already made arrangements to infiltrate this unit, hoping to conduct a future green-on-blue attack against US trainers.)  Despite ISIS’s departure from Mosul, there was still no agreement between the central government and Sunni leaders on new governance arrangements, nor had any Iraqi forces been able to enter the city. Washington was pleased with the attrition and degradation that ISIS had suffered, but concerned both by evidence of growing Iranian influence in Iraq as well as a string of victories by the Asad regime against the opposition in Syria.

Methodological Comments

This version of the ISIS Crisis unfolded pretty much in keeping with current coalition strategy. Interestingly, everyone felt very constrained: ISIS was frustrated it could not recapture the sense of momentum it had enjoyed in 2014; the Sunni opposition was fearful of ISIS and dubious about Iraqi central government; the Kurds were unwilling to take risks or casualties in capturing non-Kurdish territories; both the Iranians and US were unwilling to get sucked too deeply into a ground combat role in Iraq, simultaneously suspicious of and in need of each other, and well aware that if they were too heavy-handed their actions could easily backfire. The Baghdad government itself found itself constantly distracted by crisis after crisis, and hampered by corruption and inefficiencies.

The fact that all the players knew the situation in Iraq well certainly helped keep the game on a relatively realistic track. There is always the risk in matrix games that players will, deliberately or through ignorance, act in ways that would be highly unlikely in real life, thereby distorting the evolution of the game narrative. We’ll need to run some tests with players with less knowledge of the situation to see how those effects can best be managed. Most of the players ended up internalizing their roles to some extent, which made their interactions and antagonisms all the more genuine. Once again, I had socially engineered the role assignments to some degree—it wasn’t a coincidence, for example, that the Iraqi Sunni player was of Iraqi Sunni origin, or that the Iranian player was originally from Tehran.

Player feedback was positive. Quite apart from everyone enjoying themselves (and the pizza), many said they thought the process had illuminated a number of key issues and dynamics.

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