I Led a NATO Invasion of Syria. This Is What I Learned.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Aug. 29 2013 12:09 PM

I Led a NATO Invasion of Syria

This is what I learned.

guided-missile destroyer USS Stout (DDG 55) launches a Tomahawk missile in support of Operation Odyssey Dawn.
Guided-missile destroyer USS Stout launches a Tomahawk missile in the Mediterranean Sea on March 19, 2011. Combat Mission Shock Force iis a video game that examines how a U.S.-led invasion of Syria might be fought.

Photo by Nathan Pappas/U.S. Navy photo/Handout/Reuters

Burning American armored vehicles, shattered by volleys of anti-tank missiles, are strewn across the Syrian landscape. U.S. infantry fight house-to-house in Syrian villages, in a fight to the death against die-hard fighters.

This is neither fantasy nor nightmare, but a simulation, a computer game that asks the question: What would happen should U.S. and NATO ever invade Syria to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad? Would it be a Desert Storm blitz where high-tech U.S. forces slice through demoralized Syrian government forces? Or another Iraq, where an endless insurgency leaves American troops fighting off endless sniper attacks and IED explosions?

Such a scenario may not be likely, but it isn’t far-fetched. The United States is poised to strike Syria in response to the Assad government's alleged use of chemical weapons. For now, it appears that any strike would probably rely on cruise missiles launched from ships and submarines in the Mediterranean. But wars are easier begun than finished. Perhaps Syria, or their Iranian and Hezbollah allies, retaliates with terrorist attacks. Perhaps Assad is not deterred from further use of chemical weapons, and then the United States and its allies decide they must either remove the Syrian government or lose all credibility. Cruise missiles do not topple regimes. It is boots on the ground and fingers on the trigger that must do that job.

Combat Mission Shock Force, from publisher Battlefront.com, is a video game that examines how a U.S.-led invasion of Syria might be fought. (A free demo is available here.) Designed in 2007, the premise is that Syrian state-sponsored terrorism has prompted a U.S. and NATO-led invasion, with the goal of ousting Assad. While Syria is not in the middle of a civil war in the game, it still proves how life imitates art. When CMSF was published, many gamers—including me—snorted at the idea that the United States would ever attack Syria.

CMSF is a highly complex and detailed war game, the kind that appeal to war-game enthusiasts who thrive on testing their wits in an elaborate simulation. It is a tactical simulation where troops are represented by individual vehicles and infantry squads. It is what the U.S. military would call a "constructive simulation," one that focuses on teaching strategy and tactics more than perfecting marksmanship as one might do in a first-person-shooter. The graphics are 3-D, like a first-person-shooter game such as Call of Duty, but the gameplay is more chess-like, with the Coalition and Syrian players (two humans, or human vs. computer) issuing commands, such as Move, Fire, Hunt, and Pop Smoke, to their units in turns that represent one minute of real time.

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The game is not really a simulation of a NATO-Syria war, but rather a model of modern tactical combat, with Syria as a backdrop. Thus the emphasis is on proper tactics: using armor to blast a path for the infantry while infantry protect the tanks from anti-tank weapons; taking advantage of terrain and cover; and especially coming up with the right plan at the outset of the battle, because the game features command and control delays that result in precious minutes being lost as units take time to respond to new orders. Including various expansions to the game, there are dozens of scenarios involving U.S. Army, Marine Corps, British, Canadian, German, and Dutch troops battling Syrian forces for a variety of missions, such as seizing key towns, bridges, and government facilities as they fight their way toward Damascus.

Remarkably, the game captures many aspects of what U.S. troops would likely face in Syria today. For example, playing as NATO, I discovered that Syrian forces come in several flavors, from elite Republican Guard and commando units with the latest Russian anti-tank missiles, to regular troops and lots of militia that are poor in weapons and training but make useful speed bumps. This parallels the current Syrian military, much of which has defected or disintegrated, leaving a hard core of elite units backed by vicious shabiha paramilitary gangs. In the game and likely in real life, NATO troops will discover that where one battle is a cakewalk against local thugs and war criminals, the next fight will be a slugfest against well-armed Assad loyalists who know that a rebel firing squad or a judge in the Hague await them if their side loses.

Playing the simulation is also to discover that Syria is one big arms depot where Russian anti-tank weapons are as common as a can of beans, including advanced Kornet tank-killer missiles. The game assumes that a Western invasion would consist of heavy mechanized units, which is probably a good idea because the lightly armored Humvees that patrolled Iraq would not last long in RPG-land, let alone Kornet hell. Yet the Western player will find that his forces, especially the manpower-poor NATO armies like the Dutch, have plenty of vehicles but not a lot of infantry. While the steppes and deserts of Syria are armor-friendlier than the Vietnamese jungle and Afghan mountains, there are still plenty of cities, villages, orchards, and hills to require the grunts to dismount from their Bradley and Warrior armored troop carriers, though there never seem to be enough boots to cover the ground.

If this was World War II and an enemy-occupied village barred a road, U.S. troops would simply remove the obstacle with high explosives. But to reflect the age of YouTube and Human Rights Watch, the game appropriately penalizes NATO by costing them—but not the Syrian government—victory points for causing collateral damage. Thus NATO's immense firepower must be used cautiously. The Syrian government also gets extra victory points for destroying NATO vehicles and troops. It may not be able to defeat Western troops on the battlefield, but they can win the game just by inflicting sufficient casualties on a coalition whose publics are not likely to be enthused about invading yet another Middle Eastern country.

Nonetheless, Western troops have tremendous advantages. They have better equipment, air support, and superior command and control. A U.S. Marine Corps rifle company or a German Leopard tank platoon are simply going to accomplish more in a given increment of time than their Syrian counterparts. While it gives them a vital tactical edge, it doesn't guarantee victory.

Playing the game reminded me less of the Iraq War, which was a counterinsurgency war of IEDs and raids against militants hiding among the civilian population, and more like the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah conflict, where Israeli armor was savaged by a Hezbollah force using guerrilla warfare tactics and advanced Russian anti-tank weapons in an essentially conventional war. The Syrians are outgunned, but they are numerous, entrenched, and they only need a few lucky shots, a few destroyed American tanks, to win a propaganda victory.

Is this how a real U.S. invasion of Syria would turn out? Possibly, and perhaps it wouldn't hurt President Obama to spend a few hours playing Combat Mission Shock Force. On the other hand, this computer simulation is designed for gamers, not policy-makers (though it's probably no less valid than the computer simulations the Pentagon uses). There are numerous factors the game leaves out, such as drones, which would be integral to any American ground force. IEDs are featured in the game, but nowhere as many as the Syrians would likely use. There are no chemical weapons, though a desperate regime might use them, and there aren’t well-trained Hezbollah troops aiding Assad. Most glaring is the lack of Syria’s present-day chaos—no combat between the government and rebels, no Western troops battling al-Qaida jihadis who would as happily shoot an American soldier as Assad's troops. The combat is bloody, but not half as confusing as the current Syrian conflict.

The most valuable insight to be gleaned from Combat Mission Shock Force is what might go wrong if the West decides to oust Assad the hard way. If regime change goes the way Washington hoped Iraq would go in 2003, no problem. But if Assad's troops stand and fight, they will lose—still they will inflict casualties on America and its allies. Whether that prospect would be sufficient to deter a cautious Obama administration and a war-weary American public remains to be seen. But it should be remembered.

Michael Peck is Games Editor at Foreign Policy and writes the War Games blog at Forbes. His Twitter is @Mipeck1.

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