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Analytical gaming in uncertain times: the Middle East, covfefe, and beyond

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The last few weeks have seen terrorist attacks in the UK, Iran, Iraq, and elsewhere, inspired or organized by ISIS (the so-called “Islamic State,” or “Daesh” as often called by its opponents). The US appears to be bolstering intelligence collection and covert action in Iran. A diplomatic dispute in the Gulf has escalated into political and economic warfare, pitting Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt (and their friends) against Qatar—a crisis complete with deportations, the suspension of air or maritime access, financial countermeasures, and threats to imprison all who disagree. The Turkish parliament has approved the deployment of troops to Qatar, where the Emir likely has some worried that Saudi actions could escalate further to supporting a coup attempt, or even direct military intervention. President Trump has tweeted support for the Saudi moves even as the US State and Defence Departments have praised Qatari cooperation on counter-terrorism efforts. The slaughterhouse that is the Syrian civil war continues, as does the bloody effort by the Iraqi government to liberate Mosul from ISIS. Amidst all that, the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq has announced a date (September 25) for their long-promised (advisory) referendum on Kurdish independence.

And that’s just the abbreviated version.

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As a Middle East specialist, it is no wonder I’ve been glued to the news (and Twitter), and can’t get much academic writing done.

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First, regarding ISIS:

  • The vast majority of ISIS Crisis matrix games that we have played since 2015 showed the jihadist group suffering reversals of its territorial gains in 2016, and ultimately being pushed back into an increasingly desperate defence of Mosul (Iraq) and Raqqa (Syria) by 2017—exactly what has happened.
  • Those games almost invariably saw the organization compensating for this by encouraging terror attacks in the Middle East, Europe, and elsewhere in an effort to maintain its global jihadist image and rally its supporters.
  • In the majority of games the Iraqi government made greater military progress towards Mosul than it did political progress towards reconciling with its own Sunni Arab minority. Certainly that also seems to be the case in Iraq too. Moreover, military operations often generated new sources of Sunni grievance as civilians were caught in the crossfire or suffered sectarian abuse.
  • Towards the end of the Mosul campaign the Kurds often withdrew from active fighting, built up their resources, and made other cautious moves towards independence.

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Regarding mounting tensions in the Gulf, last year’s Atlantic Council crisis game provided substantial insight to the problems that could lie ahead:

  • That game was designed to explore how differing levels of US engagement affected crisis stability in the region. Our finding was that what Washington does is more important than how much it does. This point is highlighted by the current Saudi-Qatari crisis highlights, where a more active US role seems to have made things worse rather than better. The Riyadh Summit last month clearly signalled that the Trump Administration wished to more closely engage with key Gulf allies. Those Gulf allies then took this as a green light to turn on Qatar, with potentially highly disruptive consequences (regardless of what one might think about Qatari foreign policy).
  • The game highlighted how regional actors, locked into geopolitical rivalries and threatening views of the other, easily interpret events as part of a broader hostile conspiracy. Some Iranian Revolutionary Guard officials have already interpreted the ISIS terror attack on the Iranian parliament as having occurred at the behest of Washington and Riyadh, as can be seen in the IRNA report posted above. That’s certainly nonsense, but it is nonsense that I am certain many Iranian officials genuinely believe.
  • The ease of misperception, coupled with sectarian and geopolitical tensions, creates fertile ground for “accidental” escalation. Indeed, I was so struck by how easily that happened at the Atlantic Council game that I made it a centerpiece of a subsequent presentation to US defence officials, analysts, and academic on “Noise in the Grey Zone.
  • The game also highlighted how easily Washington could be influenced by the Saudi view of things—something that certainly seems to have occurred in the Qatar crisis.
  • Designing and running the game also revealed some of the inside-the-Beltway DC sensitivities about discussing the Gulf. I won’t go into details, but—frankly—we could have done a better job of representing internal divisions within the GCC.

Finally, the extent to which the often erratic behaviour of the US Administration has become a growing source of concern for key US allies has certainly been underscored by events of the last few weeks, both regarding the Middle East but even more so concerning the recent NATO Summit, the Paris Agreement on climate change, and the terror attack in London. That’s an issue I explored a few weeks back in a piece at The Strategy Bridge on “Wargaming Unpredictable Adversaries (and Unreliable Allies).” It is sadly indicative of its relevance that the topic has garnered increasing interest from key US allies.

Finally, let me offer a tangential comment on the relationship between wargames and strategic forecasting (a topic on which I’ve written more here, although not from a gaming angle).

It is often said by wargame designers that “wargames aren’t predictions.” I have always been a little uncomfortable with that formulation, for fear that it can also become an excuse for bad game design. I understand, of course, why designers are anxious not to be saddled with excessive expectations. Because analytical games massively simplify complex realities they certainly shouldn’t be seen as some sort of crystal ball.  However, even if wargames are not specific, confidence predictions, most should operate in the universe of the possible. In that sense they are a plausibility probe of sorts, identifying what might happen, how it might happen, and what the consequences might be. Repeated plays of a game help to map out those possible futures more fully, and may even flag those that seem most likely. Certainly I would argue that the games discussed above have contributed to a better understanding of how various conflicts and crises might develop in the weeks and months ahead.

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