Exploring US engagement in the Middle East: A crisis simulation
Some weeks ago I posted a report on the game methodology that Bilal Saab, John Watts and I developed for a crisis simulation held at the Atlantic Council in Washington DC. The report from that game has now been released.
With the current American election campaign and change in presidential administrations due in January 2017, the debate over appropriate levels of US engagement in an unstable Middle East assumes vital importance. Should a new administration be more proactive in seeking to address threats, resolve conflicts, support allies, and deter foes? Should the new US president be wary about excessive American involvement in complex overseas problems, and focus on other concerns and issues closer to home? What should be done directly by Washington, and what is best addressed by local actors, alliances, and coalitions of the willing? What is the appropriate balance between doing too little and trying to do too much?
Objectives and Design
We focused in our June 23, 2016 crisis simulation on how differing levels of US engagement might affect Washington’s ability to respond to a regional crisis and how differences in US posture and policy might affect the political-military calculations and behavior of key regional and international actors. Approximately fifty former and current officials, diplomats, academics, and journalists from several countries took part as players or observers.
The game, I thought, went well. They key findings outlined in the report include the following:
- The fundamental policy question that needs to be addressed is primarily one of how the United States engages in the Middle East, rather than simply how much.
- US policy levers can only influence, not control, events in the region.
- Adversaries may not be fully deterred by a greater American military presence, but rather focus on other arenas where American power is more limited.
- Gulf partners are reluctant to act without US support—but may do so if they feel they have been abandoned.
- Gulf partners will seek to use US power as a proxy for their own.
- Russia and China cannot act as substitutes for the United States in its role as regional crisis manager.
- Europe and other US coalition members cannot provide an alternative for US leadership.
- Both US teams felt that their alternative policies gave them more freedom than the current administration’s approach, but in different ways.
- Regional conflict and sectarian tensions provide fertile ground for crisis escalation.
- Iranian behavior is deeply problematic and partly driven by a desire to be seen as having a legitimate role in the regional order.
- While cyberattacks may be an increasing part of the landscape of conflict and hybrid warfare, they pose real challenges in terms of US and allied response.
Although it isn’t addressed much in the report, I thought the game also highlighted the profound policy challenges and dilemmas associated with the Syrian civil war. In the PURPLE game, the US team significantly increased US engagement in Syria, responding to Syrian barrel bomb attacks by shooting down regime helicopters and eventually declaring a safe zone along the Turkish border. However neither of these policies worked out entirely as intended. The Russians continued—and in some cases expanded—air operations, while the shoot-down of Syrian helicopters led Iran to double down on its support for Damascus by directly deploying several thousand combat troops to Syria. In northern Syria the declaration of a safe zone led the Syrian Kurdish YPG to declare sovereignty over Kurdish-controlled areas, an action which seemed likely to bring about a Turkish military intervention—thereby raising the spectre of a coalition member attacking the supposed coalition-protected safe zone.