And its destruction will define the Middle East for years to come.
- By David KennerDavid Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq.
The year 2006 was pure horror for Iraq. It was hard to imagine the war going any worse: Sunni groups, spearheaded by al Qaeda’s powerful local affiliate, launched a series of bloody suicide bombings against Shiite holy sites and civilian areas. On Feb. 22, 2006, a bomb ripped through the golden dome of the al-Askari mosque, one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam — though no one was killed in the attack, more than 1,000 people were killed in just the first day of sectarian bloodletting. Meanwhile, Iran-funded Shiite militias were making a mockery of the Iraqi government’s claims of authority, controlling huge swathes of territory and attacking U.S. forces that tried to stop them.
According to the Brooking Institution’s Iraq Index, a total of 36,591 Iraqi civilians and security forces died violently that year. Another 3,902 insurgents were killed in the fighting, according to figures released by the international military coalition. That means an average of 3,374 Iraqis were killed each month, or roughly 111 Iraqis died per day.
The destruction wrought by the Syrian conflict has already surpassed that horrible level of violence. The United Nations estimates that 70,000 people have lost their lives in Syria since the beginning of the conflict, and the death toll has only escalated in recent months. According to the pro-opposition Violations Documentation Center, 4,472 Syrians have been killed on average each month since December. That means over this span of time, an average of 149 Syrians have lost their lives daily.
Syria’s population is roughly two-thirds that of Iraq — it is home to roughly 22 million people, while Iraq’s population totals around 31 million. Syria’s victims, in other words, are coming from a considerably smaller population pool.
Ten years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, it is hard to escape the war’s effects on the Middle East: It shaped rising Sunni-Shiite tensions throughout the Arab world, served as the frontline in the U.S. struggle with Iran, and altered the political landscape in Damascus and Beirut. Now two years since the start of the Syrian uprising, the civil war there appears poised to define the coming decade in the Middle East no less than Iraq defined the previous one.
The Syrian refugee crisis has not yet reached the magnitude of Iraq — but it is fast approaching it. The refugee wave in Iraq peaked around 2007, when the U.S. "surge" in troops caused more civilians to flee: According to the U.N. refugee agency, there were roughly 2.2 million Iraqi refugees at this point.
On March 6, the number of Syrians who had applied for refugee status with the United Nations hit one million — the one millionth refugee was a 19-year old mother of two named Bushra, who fled from the city of Homs to Lebanon. And as the violence increases, the refugee numbers are mounting quickly: Since March 6, another 165,000 Syrians have fled their country. The head of the U.N. refugee agency said on March 10 that the number of Syrian refugees could double or triple by the end of 2013 if the conflict is not resolved.
The number of internally displaced people in Iraq during the war and Syria today is already similar. According to the United Nations, 2.4 million Iraqis had been displaced from their homes by the violence in 2007, and relocated elsewhere in Iraq. Meanwhile, U.N. statistics estimate that 2.5 million Syrians are currently internally displaced — a testament to the fact that violence has spread to almost all cities and areas of the country.
While the challenge of providing for Iraqi refugees was daunting, the Syrian case is, if anything, more so. Syrians are scattered between a number of neighboring countries — Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan — and the United Nations estimates that it only has 30 percent of the necessary funds to provide for refugees for the first half of 2013. The plight of Syrians displaced within their country is even worse: The vast majority of aid money does not reach rebel-held areas, held up by red tape at the U.N. relief agencies in charge of aid distribution.
In terms of economic damage, there is no comparing the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts. The Iraqi economy — boosted by an immense American investment, the lifting of Saddam-era sanctions, and the world’s second-largest oil reserves — emerged from the war battered but not broken. Iraq’s GDP contracted by a dramatic 41 percent in 2003, as business came to a standstill with the beginning of the war — but rebounded by 46 percent in 2004. Since then, the Iraqi economy has expanded an average of 4.5 percent per year. Iraq still faces serious economic problems — notably, an excessive reliance on energy revenues — but its troubles are dwarfed by the economic devastation in Syria.
A report prepared by the Syrian Center for Policy Research (SCPR), an NGO focused on economic issues that collaborated with U.N. officials and the Syrian Central Bureau of Statistics, estimated that almost half of Syria’s wealth — 45 percent of GDP, to be exact — has been destroyed over the past two years. A report by the Institute for International Finance, a global association of financial associations, also found that the Syrian pound had lost 72 percent of its value since the beginning of the uprising, and projected that the country’s economy will shrink by another 15 percent in 2013.
Unemployment in Syria, meanwhile, jumped to 35 percent since the beginning of the crisis — a spike that will affect the livelihoods of over 6 million Syrians. Basic resources are also in short supply: Syria’s electricity production has been cut in half due to fuel shortages, Damascus suffers frequent blackouts, and rebel-held areas receive only a few hours of power a day. Bread has also been scarce, with prices in Aleppo shooting up from 21 cents for a bag of eight loaves to nearly $3 in December.
Unlike Iraq, Syria also doesn’t have the energy revenues to recover quickly from this war. According to BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy, it sits on a meager 0.2 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves — by comparison, Iraq is home to 8.4 percent of the world’s known reserves. Syria is also rapidly depleting its energy supplies: Oil production peaked
in 1996, and has been declining ever since.
There are many views of how to respond to the Syrian crisis, but there should be little doubt that whatever the world does, Syria will shape the Middle East for years to come. Just like Iraq, the war has opened sectarian wounds throughout the region: In Lebanon, the Shiite militant party Hezbollah has joined the war on the side of Assad, while Sunni groups have crossed the border to assist the rebels — and both expect the war’s outcome to determine the balance of power in Beirut. In Iraq, the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shiite, has allowed Iranian planes bearing weapons for Assad to routinely fly across Iraqi airspace — Iraqi Sunni militants, meanwhile, have provided assistance to the Syrian revolt and even killed 48 Syrian soldiers on Iraqi soil in early March.
Syria’s disintegration will do more than exacerbate the Sunni-Shiite rivalry. In the north, the Kurdish community looks poised to carve out a de facto autonomous area, from which it could struggle for power with Arab anti-Assad rebels or even launch attacks into Turkey. In the south, the rebels’ four-day kidnapping of 21 U.N. peacekeepers has raised the possibility that the lightly armed U.N. force that has helped keep on the peace on the Golan Heights for four decades could withdraw — a move that could open the doors to Israeli intervention. And of course, radical Islamist groups such as the al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, which have already gained control of large swathes of territory and heavy weaponry, could maintain these safe havens in the chaos of Assad’s fall. That would likely bring the war on terror to Damascus’s doorstep.
As Gen. David Petraeus said one decade ago as U.S. forces plunged across the desert toward Baghdad: Tell me how this ends.