July 10, 2012

Lessons from a Syria wargame

On June 27, I participated in a day-long crisis simulation about the regional effects of the conflict in Syria, which was co-sponsored by AEI, the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution, and the Institute for the Study of War. Although such simulations are necessarily artificial and simplified (the only teams in the simulation were the Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United States, for example), they nevertheless provide valuable insights about the issues involved and the national interests at stake. Four key themes emerged from the game.

1. The road to Damascus leads through Ankara. Turkey emerged as the most critical regional state. In each of the game’s three moves, the United States, and by extension NATO, chose to reflect Turkish preferences rather than take more initiative on its own. Unless Turkey actively supports more direct action in Syria, the United States and NATO will not do so -- and, unlike Libya, no NATO member states are going to push Turkey to support direct action. This suggests that more forceful efforts to remove Assad from power will only happen if and when Turkey decides that would be the best way to secure its own national interests.

2. Military force against Assad will only be a very last resort. Turkey only supported military action to remove Assad in the game’s last move, where the game designers made the situation so dire that Turkey essentially had no other alternatives. The U.S. team quickly rejected all military options in the earlier moves, and even in the last move, would have chosen to maintain the (terrible) status quo if the Turkish team had not decided to enter Syrian territory.

3. The Arab states don’t have a whole lot of diplomatic leverage over developments in Syria. The game was designed so that Saudi Arabia was the key Arab player, but as the Saudi team admitted during the debrief at the end of the day, it didn’t have a whole lot to do. The Saudi team did continue funneling arms and support to the Syrian opposition throughout the game, so it did affect the course of the conflict in that way. Yet its only source of diplomatic leverage was offering money, and the Turkish team rejected every such Saudi offer. If Saudi Arabia can’t influence regional diplomacy, it’s unlikely that many other Arab states will be able to do so.

4. No one wants to own Syria after the fall of Assad. This did not surprise anyone, but it is worth emphasizing since it is so critically important. None of the participants believed that the Syrian opposition would be strong enough to maintain some amount of civil order throughout the country after the fall of Assad, and none of the teams supported strong international intervention to play that role. This means that whenever and however Assad falls, civil strife could well escalate into violence and possibly into a continued civil war.

Taken together, these themes suggest that the status quo in Syria could persist for quite a long time, with the opposition and regime continuing to fight throughout the country while the humanitarian situation worsens. Then again, if there were any easy solutions to the Syrian crisis, Assad would already be gone.