Would a NATO tank war against Bashar al-Assad’s army end up like the Iraqi mess?
Crowned by clouds of dust and diesel, the German panzers clanked through the chalky Syrian plain, crunching the ripening crops beneath their tracks. Stone walls and orchard-strewn hills that had witnessed countless invaders over the millennia silently observed the long column of armored vehicles relentlessly advancing toward the city of Aleppo beyond the horizon.
But this was not Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps thrusting into the Levant in the summer of 1942. The year was 2008, and while the tanks were Germany, they belonged to the modern Federal Republic of Germany. They were virtual vehicles, a part of Combat Mission: Shock Force, a computer wargame that depicts a 2008 invasion of Syria by U.S. and NATO forces in response to a wave of Syrian-sponsored terrorism. The premise of the game seemed unlikely when it was published in 2007; America was mired in two wars, and Bashar al-Assad's regime seemed firmly in control. But today, with Syria engulfed in near civil war and mutterings of Western and Turkish intervention, the game suddenly seems prescient.
Shock Force is neither a political-military simulation nor a video shooter game like Call of Duty. It's a highly detailed, 3-D game of modern tactical combat at the level of individual vehicles and small teams of infantry. You're not nation-building nor peering through a rifle scope; instead, you're stepping into the shoes of a company or battalion commander who must focus on the decisions that decide battles, such as where to position your tanks to achieve the best fields of fire, when to call in artillery, or when your infantry should dismount from the protection of their armored carriers.
The game shows the hallmarks of considerable research into the forces of the combatants and the capabilities of the weapons they use. But this is basically window-dressing for the game's purpose, which is to demonstrate the lethality of modern weapons, illustrate the importance of battlefield factors such as morale and command control, and last but not least, give armchair generals a chance to play with awesome armaments. Military buffs will love this game; the Western armies ooze enough high-tech weapons to make any hardware-head orgasmic. Even the Syrians get a few good weapons, like Kornet anti-tank missiles and upgraded T-72 tanks, though most of their equipment is older Soviet gear past its prime.
Players can choose to conduct their own brand of regime change from a choice of armies, including a U.S. Army Stryker brigade, U.S. Marine Expeditionary Brigade, and mechanized task forces from Britain, Canada, Germany, and the Netherlands. In this world, Syria is not fractured by civil war, but Assad's forces are a motley mix of elite "Republican Guards" (where have I heard that phrase before?), heavily armed special forces, mediocre regular army conscripted troops, plus assorted fedayeen volunteer cannon fodder. They also have a lot of armor; even if many of Assad's 5,000 tanks are obsolete models that the Israelis easily destroyed in 1982, a Cold War-vintage Soviet-made T-62 can still take out a Stryker.
Given American war weariness and the administration's reluctance to even take the lead in Libya, taking down Assad would probably be a NATO operation. So I chose the German-led campaign, called "Die kunst des Krieges" (The Art of War"), in which a powerful armored battle group of the 10th Panzer Division advances south from Turkey to surround the key northern city of Aleppo. Seventy years ago, the Syrian public would have cheered on the Germans as they kicked out the French colonialists and exterminated the Jews of Palestine. But instead of flowers, my Battle Group Von Noob finds the road to Aleppo strewn with IEDs.
The Shock Force campaigns consist a series of linked battles, each of which must be won before progressing to the next. I won't delve into each battle, which tended to be roughly similar struggles with NATO forces attempting to dislodge dug-in Syrian defenders. What's more interesting are the lessons learned. The battles often depended on the quality of the defenders. Sometimes the game felt like Iraq in 2003, with the Syrian side made up of conscript infantry and fedayeen armed with a few rocket propelled-grenades and machine guns. Other times, the game felt like Lebanon in 2006, with hidden Syrian commandos using advanced Russian-made Kornet anti-tank missiles to blow holes in my Leopard 2 tanks and Marder troop carriers.
As the German commander, I hoped that the Syrians would channel Stalin in 1941 and try to fight in the open against my blitzkrieg. Instead, Shock Force's computer-controlled Syrians, who may or may not be smarter than Assad's actual generals (who haven't fought a real war in 30 years, much less a victorious one), retreated to the villages and cities. There my 10th Panzer division faced a dilemma that would afflict any NATO force: I had plenty of advanced vehicles and firepower to pulverize urban terrain, but relatively little infantry to occupy it. The Germans lose victory points for inflicting civilian casualties or damaging mosques and schools, though the United States is not penalized for doing this (oh, my, have things changed since World War II). But in a war of village strongpoints, either you have the infantry and the stomach for street battles, or you stand back and blast away before sending the grunts in to comb the rubble. I found myself using more firepower than finesse, and advancing very slowly, because I could not afford to lose half an infantry squad in a sudden ambush. The Germans in Shock Force are powerful but fragile; they never receive any replacement equipment or men during the course of the campaign (like NATO running short of munitions during the Libya campaign), and automatically lose if they take more than 15 percent casualties in a single battle. The old 10th Panzer division might have fought to the death in Russia (they actually surrendered in North Africa) for their glory of the Fatherland, but their successors are in no hurry to die for regime change in the Middle East.
Shock Force is not a predictive game of a NATO invasion of Syria. Even as a simulation of modern combat, it has flaws, such as omitting the unmanned aircraft that would give today's commanders a great deal of battlefield intelligence. There are also no Hezbollah or Iranian "volunteers" aiding Assad (though the game's scenario editor allows players to add them), nor rebel soldiers and volunteers to help NATO (assuming they would help the invaders rather than fight them).
And because the game is tactical, it does not address the strategic truth, which is that the minute the first NATO tank crossed the border, the Assad regime would be doomed. The Syrians simply lack the advanced military capabilities needed to halt a NATO advance. But an invasion would still face military realities at the tactical level, where the resultant body count would have strategic resonance for Western and world public opinion. Germany opposed sending troops to aid the Libyan rebels last year; a bloody ground war in Syria could easily result in regime-change in Berlin as well as Damascus.
The question is what price can the doomed dictator extract, and it is there that a game like Shock Force is illuminating. If the Syrian military disintegrates, or if it is only effective when shooting unarmed civilians, then a NATO intervention would be relatively -- though not totally -- bloodless. But if an Alawite-dominated Syrian army, with its back to the wall and fearing retribution by the Sunni majority, fights to the last, then they have enough advanced weapons and defensible terrain to inflict politically damaging losses. Maybe the Assad regime would prove to be a paper tiger. But don't count on a blitzkrieg on the road to Damascus.