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What is Aleppo?

A little boy’s face covered in soot; he gazes forward emotionlessly, unwilling or perhaps unable to speak.

This is the image that captured America’s attention last August and shone a brief spotlight on Aleppo. Perhaps the only thing more revealing than this picture was a three word phrase that former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, a Libertarian candidate for President of the United States, uttered on MSNBC’s Morning Joe: “What is Aleppo?”

This phrase, the defining moment of Johnson’s campaign, typifies America’s widespread ignorance of the Syrian conflict. What is Aleppo? Is it the capital of Syria? The headquarters of ISIS? A fancy acronym?

Aleppo is the most populous city in Syria. It is not the capital—that title belongs to Damascus—but it has played a crucial, albeit deadly, role in the Syrian Civil War.

Aleppo is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Its citizens are some of the most diverse in the region in terms of ethnicity and religion. Historically, Aleppo has been controlled by the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires and its unique culture and architecture reflect this.

The Syrian Civil War has taken a massive toll on Aleppo.

What was once a cultural capital of the middle east is now the foremost battleground in an ongoing internal conflict of unimaginable proportions. Historical monuments such as the Great Mosque of Aleppo have been destroyed. Tens of thousands have died in the city in an ongoing conflict known as the “Battle of Aleppo.”

The city has been effectively split in two, with the pro-Assad Syrian army entrenched in the West and the rebels entrenched in the East. A no man's land sits in the middle. Thousands of civilians have found themselves trapped in the crossfire, including many children. Hundreds of thousands have been forced to flee.

Nations around the world have condemned the staggering number of human rights abuses reported in Aleppo. The Syrian government, under Assad’s authority, has ordered large-scale artillery bombings that have indiscriminately targeted civilians. Most of these civilians have little to no ties to the rebel cause.

Stephen O’Brien, UN Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, spoke before the UN Security Council and described Aleppo as the “apex of horror” for its inhabitants. He estimates that “up to 250,000 people in eastern Aleppo have been almost entirely cut off from vital supplies including food, water, medicine, and electricity for over a month.”

The United States has sent some aid to allied rebel forces in the form of supplies and intelligence. It is not nearly sufficient to cover the extent of the crisis, however. Russia also poses a massive problem as it continues aiding pro-Assad forces.

The image of Aleppo as a battleground evenly split between two sides is only partially accurate. In reality, the Syrian Civil War is a multi sided conflict with much at stake.

Two long-rivaled Islamic sects, the Sunni and the Shiite, are also fighting for control of Aleppo. Meanwhile, ISIL is steadily gaining control of the Northeast. Aleppo, the BBC reports, is so unstable that “some parts of the city [are] changing hands on a daily basis.”

Aleppo is the industrial and financial center of Syria, a fact that is not lost on neighboring countries. Turkey has quietly exploited Syrian industry and plundered at least 1000 factories during the conflict. Were any side to fully gain control of Aleppo, it would dramatically turn the tides of the war.

International powers also have quite a bit at stake in attempting to secure Aleppo. In addition to sending aid, both the United States and Russia have deployed strategic airstrikes on opposing sides of the battlefield. The war is just as much a proxy war for the US and Russia as it is a Syrian conflict.

Shortly after his embarrassing gaffe, many accused Johnson of being unqualified to run for president. He went on ‘60 Minutes’ and offered the following apology: “I am human and I do not want, in any way, to make an excuse for myself.”

As a candidate for President of the United States, his ignorance is indeed inexcusable. The president cannot assume office lacking basic knowledge of international conflicts, and the Syrian Civil War is arguably the most pressing conflict facing the world today. The United States has a massive stake in Syria and cannot afford to further escalate the violence; millions of lives are at risk.

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