Saturday, March 2, 2013

Wargaming the Syrian conflict

Since I’ve been away from the painting station I’ve been pretty exhaustively stuck on working on Syria and the Middle East/North African crisis zone. I miss my little blog, so I thought what better to do than to post a discussion on war gaming the current Syrian civil conflict (or war, or rebellion, or uprising, or terrorist influx pan Western/Iranian/Zionist conspiracy….depending on your political leanings :P).

As we are all aware the conflict emerged after a peaceful series of protests based around ethno-economic grounds aimed at the ruling Assad regime. The government responded with the widespread use of extreme force to crack down upon the dissidents, fearing a repeat of what was occurring in Egypt, Tunisia and many other parts of the Arab world. The end result was to ultimately galvanise the sentiment in opposition forces (although not actually unifying these same forces in any physical sense) that violence was necessary to affect political change. As we enter March of 2013 the conflict has now ranged for nearly two years and while official UN estimates are of around 60 – 80 thousand deaths, behind closed doors the figure is suggested to be considerably higher.

The Current Situation

As of March the situation is complicated, to say the very least. Although the rebel groups have managed to wrest control of considerable amounts of territory in the north along the Turkish border and in the eastern desert regions, like Deir El Zor. Loyalists continue to maintain control of much of the centre and coastal regions in the west. Damascus is under siege, with much of the south-eastern suburbs estimated to be occupied by rebel elements, but the centre and west remain firmly in government control. It’s also important to note that although rebel groups have captured territory in the north, many of the military hard points remain occupied by loyalists and resupplied by air. As the air force continues to experience attrition the regime’s capability to maintain these embattled firebases will wither away, however.

Geopolitically, there is also the issue of the proxy conflict being waged between the Iranians and the Saudi/GCC coalition who both seem to feel that Syria has become a test of their will vis a vis one another. While Iranian forces, along with Lebanese Hezbollah, are making all efforts to support the Ba’athist regime with material and training, the Saudis, Qataris and Jordanians are providing substantial material support to the opposition forces in the form of arms, armour and other necessary equipment. Of course, the US last week announced its intention to step up support for the FSA, a factor which is likely to have a major impact on the nature of the conflict, but also might cause similar actions from across the geopolitical table by actors like Russia and China. 

Active Forces

The Assad regime still appears to have maintained its hold over a considerable amount of the armed forces, despite the initial reports of mass-defections. For the purposes of wargaming these can be roughly broken into 4 categories of quality/morale: Conscripts (D6/D6), regulars (D6/D8-D10), Republican Guard (D6-D8/D8-D10) and Special Forces (D8/D10). Despite some media reporting that the former two have essentially ceased to exist, field reports from operators on the ground are suggesting that they remain active, particularly on the periphery. SAAF T-55s have become a common feature in the UN AoS between Israel and Syria and these vehicles are very much the purview of reserve and low quality units.

Contrasting the centralization of regime forces, the rebels remain disparate and ad hoc in nature. Currently there are at least three categories of fighters engaged in combat – secular nationalists, moderate Islamists and radical Islamists. The secular nationalists represent the majority of the original political malcontents and are effectively fighting to instate a government more representative of the Sunni-majority demographics in Syria. Moderate Islamists are those who have engaged in combat based along Islamic principles of brotherhood, solidarity and the ummah but who do not have a political agenda of imposing ultraconservative Sharia if they achieve victory. The radicals subscribe to the same general ideals as the moderates, but want to utilize the instability of the chaos to affect change in the form of political Islam based along Salafist principles. These three categories are not cohesive blocs, however. One estimate I have seen with rather convincing supporting evidence puts the number of major factional groups on the rebel's side at over 40. Another suggested hundreds. Attempts to consolidate all of these organizations under a single operational command and control with the SNC have failed up until now.

As the combat has drawn on we have seen considerable attrition rates on both sides. The secular FSA has struggled to replenish its losses in manpower and material, the radical groups, most famously Jabhat Al-Nusrah, have much stronger networks that illicit better equipment and support. The relative advantage this has given the radical Islamist groups has had the secondary effect of causing wide-spread defections from the FSA into the ranks of the Islamists, who they feel can give them a better shot at challenging the regime, even if it requires the adoption of some undesirable principles. The implications of this legitimation of radical Islamists due to their deeper pockets is worrying to many Syria watchers and may have colored the US’s decision last week to up support for the FSA. The FSA remains a highly pluralistic entity with a complete lack of standardization of training, tactics and equipment. As such the quality levels should range from D6 to D8 and the morale from D6 to D10. Jabhat Al Nusra has shown themselves to possess a considerable level of tactical and strategic efficacy and dedication. They should generally be considered D8/D10. It should be noted that JN have claimed responsibility 80% + of the suicide attacks that have occurred in Syria up until this point and this should be reflected in any scenario writing.

Next time: equipment and the future?


  1. For a similar treatment of the recent conflict in Gaza, look here:

  2. Surpisingly (or maybe not surprisingly) wikipedia has a great section on the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and all of the elements that comprise it. Additionally it touches on the help received from radicals as well and is a treasure-trove for wargaming scenarios from the Syrian Civil War.