From a distance, Syria 'feels' like Iraq in 2004

There's some hope for a faster end to the fighting – with British Prime Minister Cameron hinting at safe passage for Assad if he decides to quit the fight. But the outlook is grim.

By , Staff writer

Mass casualty suicide car bombs. Kidnappings and executions of noncombatants for having the wrong political views. Religious antagonism. An expanding circle of death beyond leaders and fighters to their loved ones. Violence that can descend almost anywhere in an instant, one part traditional combat, two parts terror tactics and civilian ambushes carried out by a patchwork of militias with murky allegiances and ideologies.

That paragraph well describes Iraq at the start of 2004. The real post-Saddam bloodletting was just getting underway, and while death squads and suicide bombings were spreading dread from Basra in the south to Mosul in the north, almost no one had a full handle on what was happening, or the horrors that were to come. I certainly didn't see what was coming, or at least didn't want to believe what I was seeing on the ground.

Well, from a distance (I have not covered the war in Syria on the ground), Syria now "feels" a lot like Iraq did then. In the past two days or so, there was a suicide bombing in Hama province that was claimed by the Sunni Jihadi group Jabhat al-Nusra and that a pro-opposition group said killed 50 members of the Syrian government security forces. Yesterday, the funeral was held for pro-government television actor Mohamed Rafia, who was abducted and executed by rebels on Friday. Earlier today, Mohamed Osama al-Laham, the brother of Syrian parliament speaker Jihad al-Laham, was assassinated in Damascus.

Recommended: Sunni and Shiite Islam: Do you know the difference? Take our quiz.

More generally, fighting raged around the country, with government war planes strafing rebel positions and civilian neighborhoods in rebel-held areas alike. More than 150 people were killed across Syria, many civilians, on Monday.

To be sure, there are stark differences between Iraq then and Syria now. There has been no foreign invasion or occupation, and there are lots of specific differences between the two countries. While Iraq under Saddam had a Sunni-dominated Baathist government and a Shiite majority, in Syria the Alawite sect of Bashar al-Assad is dominant politically and Sunnis are dominant numerically.

A further wrinkle is the presence of the descendants of Palestinians who lost their homes in the foundation of Israel, and now number more than 400,000 people.

The Palestinian community in Syria appears split. While many have taken up arms against Assad, still others have fought on his behalf. There have been persistent claims of Palestinian militiamen from Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command fighting on the side of Assad's forces in some districts of the capital.

The AP reports there's an element of inter-Palestinian conflict in the fighting, with the PFLP-GC saying the fighting started after Palestinians fighting with the rebellion attacked civilians in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk.

But there are plenty of similarities, particularly the substantial presence of jihadis in Syria, much as they were in Iraq. These are very much the same sort of people who were fighting the US troops in Iraq (and running death squads against Shiites) during the war there. Aaron Zelin shares on Twitter this pre-martyrdom picture of Libyan Ahmad Bishasha, characteristic of Al Qaeda-style propaganda. Jahbat al-Nusra claims that Mr. Bishasha carried out a suicide attack on that group's behalf yesterday.

The international community is looking on with ineffectual alarm, particularly with an eye toward the chances of major sectarian reprisal killings if Assad is defeated and the victorious rebels end up having large numbers of the jihadis in their ranks. UN Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi told the pan-Arab newspaper al-Hayat that Syria may "turn into a new Somalia" dominated by warlords and militias in the wake of a government collapse. Mr. Brahimi says he wants a binding resolution from the UN Security Council on a Syrian transition to end the fighting, though he's well aware that Russia has vowed to exercise its veto against any such resolution.

Meanwhile, British Prime Minister David Cameron tells Al Arabiya that safe passage out of Syria with a promise of no war crimes prosecution "could be arranged." 

“Done. Anything, anything, to get that man out of the country and to have a safe transition in Syria,” he told the network. "Of course I would favor him facing the full force of international law and justice for what he’s done. I am certainly not offering him an exit plan to Britain, but if he wants to leave he could leave, that could be arranged."

For now, Assad remains defiant, and he's pounding both the rebels and civilians who oppose him with artillery, warplanes, and helicopter gunships.

How Syria will play out in the coming months is anyone's guess. When regimes collapse, they collapse fast. But until something changes, Syria looks more and more like Iraq on the verge of the worst horrors of its own civil war every day.

Recommended: Sunni and Shiite Islam: Do you know the difference? Take our quiz.
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