What is Aleppo? A Symptom of a Larger Problem
“A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth” – Michael Kinsley
In point of fact, gaffes can go beyond the Kinsley definition. Gary Johnson provided an instantly classic example with his ignorance on the existence of the Syrian city of Aleppo. Johnson deserves most of the criticism he is getting for this ignorance (I’m sure there is criticism of it out there that he doesn’t deserve, but I haven’t seen it), but the reaction has revealed that no one is covering themselves in glory on Syrian policy. Indeed, Johnson’s error is part of a larger problem regarding his view on Syria, which is far more widely held than it should be (and with which I have never agreed, my decision to support his candidacy has other reasons).
The first evidence of the problem came from some of the reaction to Johnson’s “What is Aleppo” fiasco. Mike Barnicle (the MSNBC interviewer) got he ball rolling in the wrong direction by describing the city as “the epicenter of the refugee crisis” (Politico via Doug Mataconis), which it is not (the displacement situation in Syria is too horrific to have any kind of epicenter). Alan Rappeport (NYT) and former Ambassador to Iraq Chris Hill both called Aleppo the capital of Daesh, which it is not (Raqqa is). Even Rappeport’s subsequent correction (as of 11:55 AM) called Aleppo the capital of Syria (that’s Damascus). Mataconis himself called Aleppo “the center of the battle between the Assad regime, ISIS, and the supposedly moderate rebel groups fighting to overthrow the Assad regime” (Daesh has never been in the city).
Now, one can say that none of them are running for president, and one would be correct. None of the above mititgates Johnson’s failure. It does, however, represent a painful ignorance most Americans have regarding Syria – Johnson included.
For most Americans, Syria wasn’t worth one’s attention until Daesh showed up. As such, the focus from American voters and politicians has been mainly centered on Daesh since 2014. The foreign policy forum with Donald Trump and with Hillary Clinton last night revealed this as well (Time). Daesh was mentioned 17 times by the candidates (as “ISIS”). Assad was mentioned once, by Matt Lauer.
This is exactly how the Ba’athists and their allies in Tehran, in Moscow, and in Beijing want it. The Assad regime itself has been more than willing to help Daesh along in an attempt to convince the rest of the world that the choice in Syria is binary.
Sadly, it’s worked on much of the Republican Party, from Donald Trump all the way down to Richard Black. It’s worked on much of the Democratic Party as well, which is why Mrs. Clinton defended her role in the nuclear deal with Assad’s sponsors in Tehran and kept quiet about the Syrian tyrant himself…
…and, obviously, it’s worked on Gary Johnson.
So what happens when one’s eyes fixate on Daesh and remain blind to Assad? Places where Daesh are not fade from view. They don’t get ones attention, or they get forgotten.
Places like Aleppo.
Therefore, Johnson’s confusion on the city is a symptom of a larger problem: the refusal to see Ba’athism as a danger to the West. That is a failure of Johnson, but also one of nearly all of his critics.