Simulating the Syrian Civil War

Today we have a guest post from Guy Zohar, an instructor at Bar-Ilan University, Israel. He can be contacted at guyzoharbiu [at] gmail [dot] com.

The Syrian civil war is already one of the bloodiest and most devastating conflicts in the 21st century, and it is far from over. To explore various dimensions of the war, seventy-five people at the recent International Studies Association (ISA) annual convention in Baltimore, Maryland participated in “The Syrian Civil War and the Spread of Terror” simulation.

Participants assumed roles such as Bashar al-Assad, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Abū Bakr al-Baghdadi and were assigned to teams that represented major actors in the conflict. Team size varied depending on the actor’s complexity and its power status. Each participant was given short and long range goals to accomplish in the face of challenges such as terror attacks. The ultimate long range goal was to agree on a framework for settling the entire conflict.

The simulation involved two “international conferences”: a virtual one on Facebook, before the ISA convention, and a second session in Baltimore, where all participants faced each other at the negotiation table.

One may ask “why use two platforms and do two conferences for the same simulation?” The answer is simple: each platform complemented and made up for the disadvantages of the other. Many participants could not travel to Baltimore, so the virtual conference enabled everyone to take part regardless of whether they physically attended the ISA convention. Meeting others on the web before in-person negotiations also helped “melt the ice.” Facebook proved to be a very suitable platform for these purposes. It is familiar, accessible, simple, and free. Participants could easily upload photos and link to resources, and use of the “like” button raised motivation and encouraged participation.

Facebook also had some downsides. Controlling or following such a large simulation with many participating posting simultaneously was definitely a challenge. Crowded interactions made bilateral communication, an important aspect in negotiations, a difficult task, and almost impossible to monitor by the administrators. But most of all, Facebook, like other virtual platforms, could not replace the in-person rhetoric, body language, and eye contact that helped the face-to-face component succeed.

Despite these shortcomings, Facebook’s availability and simplicity made it a useful supplement to face-to-face engagement—demonstrated by the “likes” received by the participants who played the roles of people like Bashar al-Assad and Abū Bakr al-Baghdadi.

For information on designing a simulation similar to the one described here and on the integration of social networks into simulations see the World Politics Simulations project handbook and these supplemental materials.