Why you should care

Because it’s one of the greatest humanitarian tragedies in modern history. 

Eric Czuleger is a freelance writer and the creator of the “Howl” podcast. He is currently traveling through the Middle East, conducting research for his next book.

To answer Gary Johnson’s not-so-innocent gaffe:

Aleppo is the second largest city in Syria, the country’s prewar economic center, and it occupies strategic importance to both sides of the Syrian civil war. It’s a hub in the economic and psychological consciousness of Syrians because the future of Aleppo dictates the future of Syria itself. Whoever gains control of it turns the tide of the war.

The group that takes Aleppo has the ability to force Assad either to the negotiating table or out of power altogether.

If Bashar al-Assad’s regime takes the city, this signals to insurgents that Damascus is firmly in control. If rebel forces take control of the city, it’s a clear indication that they’ve organized to the point of being an effective military force. The group that takes Aleppo might have the ability to force Assad either to the negotiating table or even out of power.

The problem is that there’s no clear opposition force. This benefits Assad, puts a hold on Western intervention and leaves thousands of civilians in the crossfire. The Free Syrian Army has long been touted in the West as the only force with a chance of overthrowing Assad. But it is not unified around a central ideology and is just one of many forces fighting for control of Aleppo.

The fragmentation of the rebel groups prevents Western powers from supporting them. Among them are Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as the al-Nusra Front, which reportedly split this summer from al-Qaida; factions of Iraqi fighters supported by Iran; and the Kurdish YPG, which has gained considerable territory along the Turkish border. Each group is hoping to fill the anticipated power vacuum in Syria and project power across the region, and each has vastly different goals and international allegiances. While Western powers wait to organize policy around the group that comes out on top, Assad’s regime continues a successful policy of dividing each group against one another. Kheder Khaddour, senior researcher at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, recently told Al-Jazeera that this strategy leaves rebels so divided from one another that “the regime can negotiate cease-fires on a case-by-case basis,” which will enable the regime “to remain the strongest player in any future negotiation.”

The Syrian Armed Forces are also maintaining a front line against ISIS in northern Aleppo. As long as Assad is fighting ISIS, he can be seen as a solid ally in the international fight against extremism. In the Middle East, security often trumps justice, and Assad’s fight against ISIS may be enough to convince the world that he is the lesser of two evils.

Meanwhile, the people living in Aleppo are suffering. Lack of food, water, electricity, medical supplies and unrelenting bombardment from Russian and Syrian armed forces are daily struggles. Just last month, images of a bloodied, dust-covered young boy became the face of these atrocities, which show no sign of ending. Though Russia has made a move to open humanitarian corridors to allow noncombatants to leave the city, citizens have been skeptical of Moscow’s motives. It’s estimated that since the beginning of the war, the population of Aleppo has suffered a loss of between 200,000 and 300,000 of its residents, either through migration or death. While the fighting continues for control of this besieged Syrian city, innocent civilians are paying the heaviest price.

Aleppo, in short, is a bargaining chip and a base of operations. It’s the keystone in a global war being fought block by block in crumbling city streets. It’s a chess game being played with bombs and Kalashnikovs. Aleppo is Syria. Aleppo is a microcosm of the raging battle for the Middle East.

If U.S. presidential candidate Johnson does not know this, we should really be asking, “Who is Gary Johnson?”

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