PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

V​eiled Ambition​: A Simulation of Iranian-American Relations in the Middle East

Strategic Crisis Simulations is a student organization affiliated with the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University in Washington, DC. They kindly provided PAXsims with this summary of their recent “Veiled Ambition” simulation.

Ryan Kuhns assisted with this report.

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Scenario Overview

Veiled Ambition​is a simulation that examines the complex relationships in the Middle East in four distinct areas: Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon. In each of these countries, writers constructed plotlines which asked the participants to consider the question of Shi’a and Iranian influence throughout the Middle East, and the shifting posture of the United States in relation to that influence.

In Yemen, participants were challenged to deal with a humanitarian disaster when they were informed that disease was rampant throughout IDP camps in the nation. In addition, as the Saudi Arabian coalition continued its air campaign against the al-Houthi rebels, participants grappled with difficult questions of human rights when bombs struck civilian targets instead of military ones. For the military and intelligence communities, HUMINT reports were given to participants that indicated a potential link between some members of the al-Houthi rebellion and Iran. It remained up to participants whether they wanted to pursue those ties on the international level, or simply deal with the al-Houthi’s as non-state actors.

In Iraq, ISIL continued to make moderate advances throughout the simulation (see timeframe below). The main plotline focused on increased political involvement and action by Shi’a groups such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH). Power shortages shook Baghdad and citizens took to the streets, rioting and calling for jobs, power, and better governance as AAH increased their involvement and their message. Participants examined how to handle (and if it was their responsibility to handle) the internal domestic problems facing Iraq, and to what extent the United States could continue to be involved in the fight against ISIL.

In Syria, the story unfolded on two primary fronts. First, participants were contacted by representatives of a group calling themselves the Southern Front, who were willing to act as proxies for U.S. interests in the Syrian Civil War. It was up to participants to decide how involved they wanted to be with this potential partner. In the north, the Kurds continued to advance and Turkey landed a number of airstrikes on Turkish positions, prompting participants to open diplomatic channels to Turkey and ideally negotiate protection for the YPG, since the Kurds are one of the most effective fighting forces involved in the Syrian Civil War, and they typically align with U.S. interests. Finally, participants dealt with the presence of Russian influence and assistance in Syria: driven more by current events than anything else, participants struggled with an unfriendly United Nations Security Council and more support for the Assad regime than they had initially believed was present.

In Lebanon, participants examined the mounting refugee crisis and were tasked to work with the Lebanese government to support the humanitarian situation. In addition, Hezbollah is currently one of the most effective actors in the region, and also a prominent Iranian proxy. Participants were challenged to re-examine their conceptions of Iranian influence throughout the region as they sought stability and safety across Lebanon, rather than mounting economic and political crisis.

Game Format

Timeline

How long did the simulation take? How much simulated time was passing?

  • The simulation was not projected into the future; it began on September 19, 2015
  • The simulation took 4 hours and 45 minutes of real time, and approximately 2 months of simulated time (September 19​– November 19​, 2015)
  • Participants were given a rough timeframe (i.e. 1 hour ~ 2 weeks) but no strict timeline was adhered to

P​articipant Positions

What roles were represented? How many participants were in each office? How many participants attended the simulation?

There were 111 total participants:

  • White House (​10)
    • Executive Office of the President (​4)
    • National Security Council (​6)
  • Defense Community (​35)
    • Office of the Secretary of Defense (​5)
      • Office of the Joint Staff (​7)
      • U.S. Central Command (​7)
      • U.S. Joint Special Operations Command (​6)
      • Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy (​5)
      • Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict (​5)
  • Diplomatic Community (​35)
    • Office of the Secretary of State (​4)
      • Bureau of Political Affairs (​4)
      • Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs (​5)
      • Bureau of Civilian Security, Democracy, and Humanitarian Assistance (​4)
      • Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (​6)
      • Bureau of International Organization Affairs (​3)
      • Bureau of Political-Military Affairs (​5)
      • Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (​4)
  • Intelligence Community (​31)
    • Office of the Director of National Intelligence (​5)
    • Office of the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (​3)
      • Central Intelligence Agency National Clandestine Service Office of Middle East Operations (​4)
      • Central Intelligence Agency Office of Near Eastern and South Asian Analysis (​7)
    • Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence (​4)
      • Department of Defense Joint Intelligence Taskforce (​8)

Participants were placed in positions, within offices, within organizations. Represented above is the organizational and office structure, but not the individual positions. For example, a participant may be the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Overseas Operations in the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations in the Diplomatic Community. In total for this simulation, 173 participants registered to attend and 111 participated on September 19​. 137 positions were prepared for the simulation.

Gameplay

Overall, the game ran exceptionally well. In Iraq, participants worked to build a regional deal to firm up electrical infrastructure. In addition, the U.S. continued to counter ISIL efforts to take territory and attack the Iraqi government.

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In Syria, the participants worked with local forces to counter increasing Russian influence and support for the Assad regime. In addition, the U.S. government successfully rescued a colonel in the Syrian Air Force who wished to defect to the United States, and prevented a member of the U.S. Embassy in Ankara from defecting to ISIL in Syria.

In Lebanon, participants worked to alleviate the Syrian refugee crisis: they set up camps near the Syrian border, and provided humanitarian support when Lebanon faced a water shortage. In addition, participants examined the complex relationship between the internationally recognized government of Lebanon, and Hezbollah, which does much of the actual capacity building and support work within the nation.

In Yemen, the work was twofold. On one front, participants worked with Saudi Arabia to alleviate the Saudi naval blockade in order to bring in humanitarian supplies. On the other, the U.S. government worked to set up intelligence networks in order to determine if Iran was supplying the al-Houthi rebels with arms and other forms of military support. Participants also briefly dealt with a diplomatic crisis when a Kuwaiti pilot, flying in the Saudi coalition, was shot down by rebels and was subsequently captured by al-Qaeda fighters.

At the beginning of the simulation, the participants requested a set of existing presidential authorities within which they could operate. The mentor acting as President responded with the following:

The President has approved:

  • Continuation of the air campaign to destroy and degrade ISIL
  • Continuation of arms transfers to our allies in the region
  • Continuation of advising and training programs
  • Continuation of consultations, outreach, and meetings with foreign governments and non­state entities

Prior Presidential approval is required for:

  • Any ground operations
  • Additional deployments of personnel
  • Expenditures exceeding $50 mil
  • Any major change of relations with Iran, Syria, or Russia

The National Security Council and Executive Office of the President briefed the President at the end of the simulation on actions they had taken and policy recommendations for further action within the region. Participants appeared to be most concerned with the instability in Syria as a potential cause for future action by the U.S.

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Conclusions

We are still processing our exit evaluations, so currently we can only comment on preliminary observations and anecdotal evidence. In this simulation there was an excellent adherence to chain of command and bureaucratic government structure, something Strategic Crisis Simulations has tried to encourage in our participants for a long time. One of our goals is to effectively model government, as efficient or inefficient as it may be. Many participants, especially those in roles such as Joint Special Operations Command, commented that they had plenty of time to prepare operations and plans, but it was difficult to work up the chain of command to actually get approval. In our view, this is a feature of the simulation, not a bug.

In addition, participants in this simulation struggled to distinguish between the operational-level challenges of crisis management and mitigation and the larger, strategic implications for actions within the region. Due to the timeframe the simulation was set in (over the course of two months), it was a delicate balancing act which some participant offices achieved more effectively than others.

Overall, V​eiled Ambition​was one of our most successful simulations to date. It was not only our largest simulation, but very diverse (with nearly equal male/female representation and participants ranging from freshmen to graduate students and young professionals). This confluence of experiences and skill sets allowed the participants to work together extremely effectively to challenge one of the most difficult geopolitical problems we face today: how to begin to tackle the myriad of problems currently facing the Middle East.

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