Syria Is Already More Violent Than Iraq

And its destruction will define the Middle East for years to come.

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.


National Security

Going Clear

Drone critics wanted greater transparency. Careful what you wish for.

According to Daniel Klaidman at the Daily Beast, "[T]he White House is poised to sign off on a plan to shift the CIA's lethal targeting program to the Defense Department." Many critics of the government's targeted-killing policy have been calling for such a move, hoping that it would (in Klaidman's words) "toughen the criteria for drone strikes, strengthen the program's accountability, and increase transparency." That may be. But if what those critics really want is to end the practice of killing suspected al Qaeda fighters with unmanned aircraft far from active combat zones, they should be careful what they wish for.

Although technically "covert" and carried out under statutory and presidential authorities designed to preserve "plausible deniability," it's an open secret that the CIA has been conducting counterterrorism strikes in places like Pakistan and Yemen. The U.S. military conducts similar strikes, usually through Joint Special Operations Command, including in Yemen and Somalia. Many argue that these strikes are illegal or counterproductive -- regardless of who conducts them -- because they deny targeted suspects legal process, violate national sovereignty, cause collateral damage, and fuel radicalism. Others believe, however, that these problems are compounded when the CIA is in charge because of the secrecy and impunity with which it operates.

In truth, critics often underestimate oversight of CIA activities and overestimate the openness of military operations. Even if the Pentagon conducts all U.S. drone strikes, the operational details will still be shrouded in secrecy, the CIA will still provide targeting information, and much of the congressional oversight will still be conducted behind closed doors (though it will shift from the intelligence committees to the armed services committees). The CIA is also subject to some statutory congressional reporting requirements that the Defense Department is not. That said, moving all strikes under Defense Department control and eliminating their officially covert status will probably allow executive branch officials and members of Congress to speak more clearly and openly about general policy in this area.

With regard to the legal rules that govern targeting, it may be that shifting operations to the Defense Department will promote stricter compliance. In a 2012 speech, the CIA general counsel stated that the agency conducts its operations "in a manner consistent with the...basic principles in the law of armed conflict" -- not that the CIA is legally required to comply with the rules -- which led many to wonder whether the agency was operating outside their bounds. The military is also much better practiced than the CIA in applying the law of armed conflict and assessing collateral damage. Even if the CIA has in reality been fully compliant, it is in the U.S. interest to promote these international legal rules by communicating unambiguously and demonstrating its own normative commitment to them. Those are things that the military is much better able to do, on account of tradition, institutional culture, and legal requirements.

So, moving operations to the Pentagon may modestly improve transparency and compliance with the law but -- ironically for drone critics -- it may also entrench targeted-killing policy for the long term.

For one thing, the U.S. government will now be better able to defend publicly its practices at home and abroad. The CIA is institutionally oriented toward extreme secrecy rather than public relations, and the covert status of CIA strikes makes it difficult for officials to explain and justify them. The more secretive the U.S. government is about its targeting policies, the less effectively it can participate in the broader debates about the law, ethics, and strategy of counterterrorism.

Many of the criticisms of drones and targeting are fundamentally about whether it's appropriate to treat the fight against al Qaeda and its allies as a war -- with all the legal authorities that flow from that, like the powers to detain and kill. The U.S. government can better defend its position without having to maintain plausible deniability of its most controversial program and without the negative image (whether justified or not) that many audiences associate with the CIA. Under a military-only policy, the United States would also be better positioned to correct lingering misperceptions about targeted killings and to take remedial action when it makes a mistake.

Moreover, clearer legal limits and the perception of stricter oversight will make drone policy more legitimate in the public's eyes. Polling shows that Americans support military drone strikes more strongly than CIA ones, so this move will likely strengthen political backing for continued strikes. Consider the case of Guantanamo: The shuttering of black sites, as well as the Supreme Court's decisions that detainees there can challenge their detention in federal court and that all detainees are protected by the Geneva Convention, have muted criticism of the underlying practice of detention without trial. Here, too, the proposed reforms would put the remaining policy on stronger footing.

It's difficult to assess fully the pros and cons of getting the CIA out of the lethal targeting business because the government has not explained why it has been using the CIA for some operations and not others. As to efficacy -- how the advantages of targeted strikes match up against the costs -- strategy should dictate which agency should be responsible, not the other way around. That said, the result of shifting control to the Pentagon will likely be a more sustainable, if perhaps more restrained and formalized, long-term policy of targeted killing.

Senior Airman Jason Epley/DVIDS