Critical Intel

Critical Intel
Endgame: Syria Updates the Civil War

Robert Rath | 12 Sep 2013 16:00
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In fact, Endgame: Syria's least realistic element is putting one player in control of the whole Rebel military and diplomatic structure. While this is understandable for gameplay reasons, realistically militants don't wait in the wings until the Rebel leadership calls them, they fight where and when they want to. There are mechanics that suggest that - fighting would destroy cultural sites on occasion, even when I didn't field any units, and sometimes your army rejects the hard-won peace deal you accept and the war continues against your wishes - but overall the game handles that chaos in the local and regional endings rather than having your troops go rogue. Still, overall the game demonstrates the devil's bargain Rebels feel forced make with militants.

One interesting way this dynamic plays out - one that's pretty subversive - is how frustrated the player becomes with the international community. While you need foreign countries to back you diplomatically in order to raise your Support, the continual hot air from otherwise unhelpful countries can become infuriating. I don't give a shit about your +8 Statement of Support, Qatar. I found myself thinking at one point. Choppers are murdering my people and I need RPGs and a goddamn No Fly Zone RIGHT NOW. Even as someone who understands the risks and consequences of an international military intervention, being the one who's wishing for foreign airstrikes - rather than the one considering whether they'd be a smart move - is a rhetorically interesting experience.

That frustration mirrors the betrayal many Syrians feel toward western governments that promised them aid but never delivered it, even after Assad crossed the "red line" on chemical weapons use. "Syrians were starting to put their faith in American help, but it hasn't come," a Rebel leader recently told NBC News on condition of anonymity. "That encourages Syrians to believe that radicals like al-Qaeda are the only ones seriously willing to make sacrifices to help them." The strange balance I'd experienced in the game is now a an ongoing conundrum in U.S. foreign policy - air strikes may encourage al-Qaeda recruitment if errant munitions kill civilians, but withholding the strikes might drive Syria deeper into the arms of militant groups.

Rawlings is already planning Endgame: Syria's next update. The team adds events as they happen, from Scud missiles to WMD fears to UN talks, sometimes even incorporating feedback from Syrians on the ground. Air strikes, he says, may be the next thing they add, as well as Hamas supporting the Rebels. But updating a game to match real-world events creates problems all its own, like preserving game balance on the fly while still reflecting reality. "We do balance the units into the game so that they fit it overall," says Rawlings. "But - and it's an important but - they reflect that unit's relative power ... as per our research into the topics. So the Scud missiles for example don't have a huge impact and they have not managed to militarily. The WMD fears have had a big political impact so that is reflected."

Whatever happens this week - events are still fluid as of this article's writing - Endgame: Syria has more than proved its ongoing ability as a rhetorical tool for understanding conflict. While it's not perfect, the game does a commendable job highlighting the complexities, difficulties and frustrations presented by the ongoing Arab Spring. Only time will tell if the Rebels will oust Assad, the Regime will crush them, or there's still hope for a negotiated peace.

As of this writing, a Syrian foreign minister has informed NBC that the regime will turn over its chemical weapons to the international community. Meanwhile, UN weapons inspectors draw up their reports, government shells fall on Damascus, and Tomas Rawlings watches, waiting to see what will happen next.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher currently based in Hong Kong. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.

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