Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Noise in the gray zone: more findings from an Atlantic Council crisis simulation

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Today I made a presentation to members of a US Department of Defense Strategic Multi-Layer Assessment group that is exploring so-called “gray zone” conflict, drawing upon some insights generated by the June 2016 Atlantic Council crisis simulation on US engagement in the Middle East. According the working definition used by the SMA team, the “gray zone” can be understood in the following terms:

The Gray Zone is a conceptual space between peace and war, occurring when actors purposefully use multiple elements of power to achieve political- security objectives with activities that are ambiguous or cloud attribution and exceed the threshold of ordinary competition, yet fall below the level of large-scale direct military conflict, and threaten US and allied interests by challenging, undermining, or violating international customs, norms, or laws

The Atlantic Council game was intended to examine US policy and regional stability, not “gray zone” conflict per se. Nonetheless, the participants certainly made use of myriad methods-other-than-(open) war: terrorism, support for armed non-state groups, cyber attacks, weapons-smuggling, information and influence campaigns, and so forth.

After a brief summary of the Atlantic Council game design and outcomes, I made several key points:

  • The parties were prone to interpret background conflict “noise”—accidents, actions by third parties—as deliberate “gray zone” warfare by a regional adversary. In the case of the Atlantic Council game, a car-bomb attack against the Iranian Embassy in Beirut was widely seen by the Iranian team as Saudi-backed revenge for Iranian actions in Syria (in fact, the Saudis were not involved in the attack, which was conducted by Syrian jihadists), while a clash between Iranian and KSA naval forces in the Gulf was viewed by both sides as a deliberate provocation by the other (whereas it was simply the accidental result of aggressive maritime maneuvering in disputed waters by local naval commanders).
  • Although the parties sometimes used “gray zone” activities to intimidate, deter, or otherwise signal their adversaries, those signals were often poorly understood—in part because signalling is often misunderstood in contexts of tension and conflict, but also because of the very ambiguity of such actions.
  • Routine actions were often reinterpreted in light of other developments. In the Atlantic Council game, for example, rising Saudi-Iranian tensions led the former to view the latter as upping the stakes in Yemen, while the latter was largely continuing on a business-as-usual basis in terms of moderate levels of support for the Houthi rebels.
  • Third parties often sought to further muddy the waters through actions in the “gray zone” intended to manipulate the perceptions of key actors. In the Atlantic Council game, for example, the ISIS team was happy to escalate Sunni-Shiite tensions so as to encourage greater Saudi-Iranian confrontation.
  • The very moral and legal ambiguity of the “gray zone” contributes to problems of threat perception and assessment. The US and Gulf teams regarded stepped-up support for Syrian opposition forces as a legitimate way of countering aggressive Iranian ambitions. By contrast, the Iranian team considered themselves as a status quo power, supporting a longstanding Syrian ally threatened by illegal, externally-backed subversion and insurgency.

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I’m not a big fan of the “gray zone” concept, partly because I think it is so ambiguous, and partly because I think it simply describes a quite common aspect of statecraft and conflict rather than anything strikingly new. Viewing the Atlantic Council game through the “gray zone” lens generated another insight, however: the very real danger that paradigms create their own reality, and may serve to frame events in ways that distort their actual causes, intentions, and implications. Rather like looking for monsters under your bed at night, it is all too easy to misperceive the shadows of the so-called “gray zone”—all the more so because some of them actually are monsters.

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You’ll find the full set of slides from my presentation here.

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