Yesterday, Tom Fisher and I ran a game of the ISIS Crisis matrix game at the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University. Partly the purpose of the game was to explore the challenges involved in mass atrocity prevention in Iraq. Even more so, however, we wanted to give MIGS some experience with the method in case they found it of use in their training, research, or outreach activities.
Once again, the complex situation in Iraq was reduced to six key sets of actors:
- “Islamic State”/ISIS
- (Shi’ite-dominated) Iraqi central government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abidi (very ably played by Concordia colleague Ahmed al-Rawi)
- Kurdish Regional Government (also, at times, playing the role of the Syrian Kurds/PYD)
- Sunni “opposition” (representing tribal leaders and other non-ISIS Sunni political figures in Iraq)
- United States
A lot went on during the game, almost all of it mirroring actual development in the region or options under active consideration by one or more of the parties.
Introducing the players to matrix gaming.
Prime Minister al-Abidi sought to reach out to the Sunni minority, while seeking to build a Sunni “National Guard” to operate against ISIL in Sunni areas. While quite genuine in this, he faced serious constraints: the Sunni opposition was suspicious, and also faced the threat of ISIL reprisals. Efforts by the Prime Minister to deliver on promises were constrained by the machinations of rival Shiite politicians, most notably former Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki. The government’s attempt to modify current de-Baathification legislation failed in parliament, damaging the Prime Minister’s credibility with his Sunni interlocutors. Perhaps most damaging to his efforts was a decision to use Shiite militias to augment Iraqi Army units in the battle to regain control of Ramadi. While the militias substantially enhanced combat power and contributed to some military success, they also engaging in several atrocities against local Sunnis. The Iraqi army did ultimately succeed in mobilizing one Sunni National Guard “brigade,” but this was later shattered in further fighting around Ramadi.
Iraqi forces have taken Ramadi, but are demoralized and deterred from exerting effective control by a campaign of IEDs, snipers, and ambushes. ISIS would later recapture the city (again).
The Sunni opposition decided quite early that they would tilt towards the government—provided that they received adequate rewards for doing so. The United States and Saudi Arabia offered arms and money. However, such moves led to a series of warnings from ISIS. Finally, when one tribe took a number of ISIS hostages and militias near Ramadi took action against local ISIS forces, the latter decided that it was time to make a very public demonstration of their power. Some tribal militias were crushed, and others joined ISIS out of self-preservation. Atrocities by Shiite militias and the Iraqi government’s close relations with Iran didn’t help the credibility of Sunni leaders trying to align with Baghdad.
The US announces stepped-up assistance for anti-ISIS Sunni tribes.
The United States, concerned at the threat posed by ISIS, increased its assistance to local allies in an effort to push them back. This included the deployment of JTACs (forward air controllers), air support, and additional US special forces to buttress the Kurds. However, a premature Kurdish offensive towards Mosul went disastrously wrong, resulting in four American military personnel being captured by ISIS. This created pressure for US military escalation. One US prisoner was executed for a grisly ISIS propaganda video. However, the CIA managed to obtain information on where the remaining prisoners were being held in Raqqa, and a risky raid by US Navy Seals was successful in freeing them.
Iran provided arms, advisors, and other support for the Baghdad government and Kurds alike, matching the US as the two rivals sought to offset each other’s influence. The Kurds had initially been reluctant to take too much support from Tehran, but this attitude soon changed after their failed Mosul offensive. In one case Iran successfully conducted a covert attack against US advisors in Baghdad, which was then blamed on ISIS.
The KRG offensive goes badly wrong, and several US personnel embedded with Kurdish units are taken prisoner. ISIS recaptures Mosul dam. With KRG permission, Iran deploys some IRGC assets to Irbil to aid in the city’s defence.
ISIS had its most success in exploiting the mistakes or failures of others, or rapidly responding to their opponents’ initiatives and finding new vulnerabilities or courses of action. Throughout the game, there was frequent fighting on the Mosul-Irbil front (with control of Mosul Dam changing hands several times), and on the Raqqa-Hassakeh front in Syria. ISIS also made some effort to make gains in Aleppo at the expense of other Syrian opposition groups. It skillfully exploited US and Iranian support for Baghdad, the capture of US personnel, and the behaviour of the Shiite militias to rally support from both local Sunnis and foreign fighters. It also punished Sunni defectors harshly, crushing rebellious tribes when they showed too much willingness to work with the central government.
The ISIS player standing behind the Sunni opposition. Shortly thereafter he would unleash a punitive campaign against pro-Baghdad tribes.
Overall, the game highlighted several key dynamics of the current situation in Iraq:
- The constraints of Iraqi capacity and local politics, and the difficulty that the central government has in undertaking major reforms and military campaigns alike. The fight against ISIS is far from the only thing going on in the country.
- The difficult position of Iraqi Sunnis, perched uncomfortably between an unpopular Shiite-dominated Iraqi central government and a brutal ISIS.
- The risk to the Kurds of assuming a more assertive military role.
- The difficulty that both Iran and the US face in using their assets and influence to affect substantial change on the ground—as well as the extent to which their rivalry affects the effectiveness of their support for allies. The US hostage crisis also highlighted the risk of more “boots on the ground.”
- The intrinsic difficulty that the parties have in pursuing a sustained and coherent strategy, given the frequency and ease with which the actions of others or unanticipated events distract from campaign plans. In the game, efforts by the US and Iran to support a systematic Iraqi military effort towards Mosul with Kurdish and Sunni tribal support were constantly derailed by problems of coordination, US-Iranian rivalry, Shiite militia atrocities, Iraqi domestic politics, unreliable allies, and ISIS counterattacks in other areas (notably in Ramadi and towards Hassakeh in Syria).
Overall, the game ended with the Sunni opposition/tribes—a key pillar of US strategy—even weaker than they had started. The military situation was largely stalemated, with the offensive towards Mosul stalled. Ramadi was recaptured by the Iraqi Army, but they were unable to ever exert effective control. The US had stepped up its level of military engagement, but with little fundamental effect. ISIS faced severe difficulty in expanding its geographic control, but benefitted from a flow of local recruits and foreign fighters to offset its losses from Iraqi and coalition military activity—indeed, by the end it had actually augmented its capacity.
Most fundamentally, the game strongly suggested that there is no “magic bullet” in Iraq that delivers rapid victory over ISIS—only a difficult, costly, slogging campaign that mixes incremental gains with periodic reverses.