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.