What is Aleppo?
That question may have just sunk the presidential hopes of Gary Johnson, a Libertarian candidate trying to poll high enough to be invited to the presidential debates this September.
On MSNBC last night, journalist Mike Barnicle asked Johnson what he'd do about Aleppo, the beleaguered city at the epicenter of the Syrian humanitarian crisis, if he were elected. Seemingly confused, Johnson responded by asking, "And what is Aleppo?"
"You're kidding," the host said in a shocked tone.
It turns out, Johnson — a man who aspires to be our commander-in-chief — didn't know what Aleppo was. Which got me thinking, do most Americans know? Do they care?
In a very unscientific but admittedly fun poll, I called up more than 15 friends and family members to see if they knew what Aleppo was. I gchatted a few others, making them promise not to Google before answering. "I'm conducting a survey for work and was wondering if you can tell me what Aleppo is," I said.
Of the 18 people I spoke to, five could answer the question on the most basic level. The general consensus was in line with Johnson's confusion. The few who did know seemed shocked I even had to ask.
"Oh, dear God," my mother said with evident exasperation after I explained why I was asking. A friend who knew the answer asked me if people I had spoken to didn't know. "That's pathetic," he sighed.
But in the aftermath of the interview, it became apparent Johnson was not alone. Even The New York Times misidentified Aleppo as the capital of ISIS (it's not even the capital of Syria).
A New York Times correction issued on their story about Johnson.
My friend's frustration stems from the fact that Aleppo is one of the most important pieces of a major ongoing crisis in desperate need of international attention. Below, we've put together a list of seven things that you need to know about the city of Aleppo.
1. Aleppo has been devastated by the Syrian war.
The city Aleppo today is not what it was 10 years ago. Once a bustling hub complete with both universities and slums, the city has become divided between regimes and a war seemingly without respite. "World heritage sites have become front lines, and treasures turned into ramparts," Marwan Hisham wrote for Vanity Fair last year.
2. Remember that little boy who survived an airstrike? He's from Aleppo.
Weeks ago, images of 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh sitting in an ambulance, covered in dust and rubble and blood, went viral online.
Since then, Daqneesh has become a symbol of Aleppo and the ongoing struggle.
3. Daqneesh is not alone.
In February, the Syrian Center for Policy Research said that more than 470,000 Syrians had died in the war. The same organization estimated the cost of the war to be $255 billion, "essentially wiping out the nation's wealth," according to The New York Times. Most tragically, about one-third of the people killed in Aleppo have been children.
4. 250,000 people are trapped in Aleppo.
That's according to the U.N. refugee agency. More than 250,000 civilians are stuck in the eastern part of the city, living in gardens and mosques. It's been more than a month since the city has had a full day of water.
5. Doctors are pleading for help.
15 of the doctors that are still in Aleppo wrote to President Obama pleading for help in August. Those doctors said in an open letter:
"Last month, there were 42 attacks on medical facilities in Syria, 15 of which were hospitals in which we work. Right now, there is an attack on a medical facility every 17 hours. At this rate, our medical services in Aleppo could be completely destroyed in a month, leaving 300,000 people to die."
6. Aleppo used to be Syria's largest, most diverse city.
In 2005, 2.3 million people lived in Aleppo. Today, only 300,000 remain. Aleppo is populated by mostly Sunni Muslims, but also has the largest population of Christians in the country.
Previously, the city was the center of a bustling financial world. Now, it is the site of key battles and sections of the city change their loyalty on a daily basis.
To much of the international community, the city has become a reminder of the cost of war.
7. So here's where we stand.
In Aleppo, much of the western part of the city is controlled by rebels while the western, formerly wealthy part of the city is controlled by Assad's government.
Generally speaking, Russia is the Syrian government's biggest and most influential ally. Experts believe the country is so invested in the conflict because of its naval facility in the Syrian port of Tartous, which is its only Mediterranean base. Russia has launched airstrikes against the Syrian rebels and currently faces serious international scrutiny for its role in the Syrian death toll.
The United States, on the other hand, is backing and even arming Syrian rebels. The American government has accused President Assad of war crimes and atrocities against his own people, and insist he must resign the presidency. Obama has pushed for a negotiated settlement and a "transitional administration," but the war rages on.
To complicate matters, ISIS is also ravaging Syria and the surrounding region. This has led the U.S. and allies of the U.S. to conduct air strikes against ISIS and other jihadists groups throughout Syria. Obama has also pushed for a training and arming of 5,000 Syrian rebels to fight ISIS on the ground, but it has hit several roadblocks and been a major point of criticism against the U.S. president.
On the most basic level, Aleppo is an incredibly important part of the war in Syria, the war against ISIS, and a divided international community. Johnson, and most Americans, should know its importance and its history.
Because maybe if Americans better understood the plight of those in Syria — or those affected by any major world crisis — we'd be more likely and more able to come to their aid.
Cover image via Shutterstock.