Invade Syria? A Video Game Tested That.

We’ve seen this script before. A cruel regime slaughtering civilians. YouTube clips of weeping mothers and dead children. Hesitant calls for humanitarian intervention by the Western powers. Much dithering while the body count climbs, and then more guilt about the dithering.

Rwanda, Bosnia, Libya. It’s happened before, so often that it’s like watching a cheap horror movie. You know what the characters are going to do (UN passes toothless resolutions. Russia and China back dictator. Everyone looks to the US to do something). This time, it’s happening in Syria. After the latest massacre, the chorus is growing to send in boots on the ground to give Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad the boot. It may just be talk. The US is burnt out from 10 years of two wars and possible conflicts with Iran and North Korea. The Europeans ran out of missiles during the Libyan intervention, which they couldn’t even mount without US logistical support. If Britain and France had problems taking on the mighty Libyan army — whose sole claim to fame is being whipped by a bunch of starving Chadians in armed utes during the Toyota War — then Assad’s elite Republican Guard and commandos might as well be Imperial Stormtroopers.

But in the Middle East, anything can happen, especially to a dictator who’s a card-carrying member of the Axis of Evil and has managed to antagonise a good chunk of world opinion. Perhaps Assad will suddenly discover the appeal of a contemplative life in Switzerland. Then again, he might decide that the dictator’s life is for him, and the only way he’ll give it up is feet-first.

Where there’s a war — or a potential war — there’s a game. But not a great game when it comes to these humanitarian-military interventions. There’s not much challenge in a Libya game where Gaddafi’s legions could be whipped by five Teletubbies in a clown car, or a Kosovo title where the Serbian player’s goal is to hide from NATO bombs. These regimes tend to be tigers against fighting unarmed civilians and lambs when real armies show up for a rumble. But Syria may be different. It has 500,000 regular and reserve troops, 5000 tanks, and experience fighting the Israelis on and off for 60 years. Knowing that the most they can expect from the Sunni Muslim rebels is being dragged through the streets while their adoring populace spits on their corpses (or maybe a war crimes trial in the Hague) is a powerful incentive for Assad and the ruling Alawite minority to fight to the end. An arsenal of the latest Russian anti-tank and ant-aircraft missiles gives them ample means to do so.

Strangely enough, there is a computer wargame on a Western invasion of Syria. 
Released in 2007, Combat Mission: Shock Force was the next generation of Combat Mission, the 1999 tactical World War II game. Some gamers were incredulous that the battlefield has shifted from French villages and the Russian steppe to Syria. Because, c’mon, like NATO is really going to invade Syria? It takes a dictator who bombards his own cities to make life imitate art.

CMSF postulates a NATO invasion force (your choice of a US Army Stryker brigade, US Marine Expeditionary Brigade, and various forces from Britain, Canada, Germany and the Netherlands) versus a hodgepodge of Syrian forces ranging from elite Republican Guards and commandos to ill-trained irregulars. The scenario is regime change in response to Syrian support for terrorism, but that’s just window-dressing for a highly detailed, turn-based tactical wargame best enjoyed by the sort of people who are into discovering the optimum tactical formation for a mechanised infantry battalion assaulting a fortified village. The game sports an impressive amount of order-of-battle research and modelling — or at least plausible estimates — of the effectiveness of modern weapons. Those expecting an American blitzkrieg like Desert Storm will discover that Russian anti-tank missiles — the ones that punched holes in advanced Israeli Merkava tanks in the 2006 Lebanon war — will do very bad things to a lightly armoured Stryker troop carrier. For all the talk of boots on the ground, the NATO forces are strong on high-tech vehicles but short on the infantry needed to clear RPG-armed defenders from villages and trenches. Add in stiff penalties for taking NATO casualties, or for NATO inflicting collateral damage on civilian targets, then getting rid of Assad is no cakewalk if his army decides to fight.

Even as a simulation, CMSF has flaws, especially in not including the swarm of unmanned aircraft that would cover any Western expeditionary force. There are no Iranian or Hezbollah fighters supporting Assad, nor are there Turkish forces, though the power most likely to intervene is Syria’s neighbour to the north.

However, the real problem with a game like CMSF is that it depicts conflict as the West (or Western wargamers) would like to fight it, as a straight-up fight between conventional armies where firepower, technology and training are the queens of battle. That may work for World War II. But Syria features a government army that has troops defecting to the rebels, while the rebels themselves — whom the West is supporting — may be under infiltration by al Qaeda. So some of the bad guys are good, and some of the good guys are bad. Pity the poor American platoon commander who’s most likely to shoot him in the back. Also pity the designer who tries to make a fun and playable game out of this.

But don’t worry. Next year there will be another dictator declaring war on his own people. Time enough to design a game on the darkest side of human nature.

Michael Peck is Games Editor at Foreign Policy Magazine and a writer for Training & Simulation Journal at Defense News

Top photo: a Syrian boy watches as a Free Syrian Army fighter stands guard in a neighbourhood of Damascus, Syria on April 1, 2012/AP Photo/Mohammad Hannon

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