Unraveling the Syria mess: A crisis simulation of spillover from the Syrian civil war


Members of the Free Syrian Army step on a carpet bearing a picture of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a wedding of three of their comrades in Sarmada, north of Idlib province June 12, 2012.

Unraveling the Syria Mess

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On June 27, 2012, the American Enterprise Institute, the Institute for the Study of War and the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution jointly conducted a one-day crisis simulation that focused on the impact of spillover from the deepening civil war in Syria. The simulation consisted of three moves and featured an American, a Turkish, and a Saudi team. The intent was to explore the interaction between the U.S. government and two of its most important regional allies, allies most able to act in Syria for various reasons (and among the most affected by the violence in Syria). The simulation looked at potential developments between August 2012 and April 2013.

Key Findings

  • An expanding humanitarian crisis in Syria was insufficient on its own to drive any of the teams toward intervention.
  • Both the American and the Turkish teams were generally reluctant to be drawn into the conflict.  The Saudi team was eager to participate financially (by funding rebels, for instance), but had little ability to affect decision-making in Ankara or Washington-let alone the situation on the ground in Syria.
  • The Turkish and American teams were very concerned about the aftermath of Asad's fall, but for different reasons:  The U.S. team was primarily determined to ensure that the United States was not responsible for Syria after Asad's departure and cared less about what followed; the Turkish team similarly feared being left holding the bag, but unlike the U.S. team, had distinct views about what kind of government it wanted to see emerge in Syria.  The Saudi team cared very little about post-Asad Syria so long as the Sunni majority was in power.
  • The U.S. and Saudi teams regarded Turkey as indispensable for any action in Syria and felt constrained in their actions by what the Turks could be persuaded to do.
  • The Saudi team came to be concerned about the collapsing situation in Iraq, but found that Saudi Arabia could do little to affect that situation.  The Turkish team evinced considerable concern with the deteriorating situation in Iraq, but felt that Turkey's interests in Syria had to take precedence.  For a variety of reasons, the American team showed little interest in Iraq and took virtually no action in response.
  • The game ended with Syria collapsed as a state and Turkish military forces mounting a creeping intervention but not in control of Syria, Iraq headed back toward 2006-levels of violence and internal conflict, and Lebanon devolving toward sectarian civil war as well.  The Saudi team regarded that outcome as success.  The Turkish team was extremely concerned about this situation, but felt that all of its other options were far worse.  The U.S. team was largely content with the result in Syria and focused on that outcome to the exclusion of the other regional problems. 
  • The U.S. team's unwillingness to consider options for handling the evolving crisis in Iraq suggests that there is such an aversion to anything Iraq-related among the U.S. policy elite that even catastrophic developments there (as depicted in the simulation) may not elicit meaningful American involvement.  It means that the United States may have a more pressing need to take action to shut down the Syrian civil war sooner, before it destabilizes Iraq, because the United States is not likely to do anything to shut down an Iraqi civil war once it has resumed, even though an Iraqi civil war could be extremely threatening to American vital interests.  



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