The surreal exchange was painful and enraging to watch. The amount of ignorance displayed by the four words uttered with a sense of worried resignation was staggering even by the historically low standards of a presidential campaign in which the Republican candidate proudly flaunts his disdain of reading books.
Gary Johnson, the former New Mexico governor and the presidential candidate of the Libertarian Party must have been living in the last five years either in a galaxy far, far away, or in solitary confinement; otherwise how can one explain the fact that a man aspiring to be the leader of the United States never heard of Aleppo? I would not have forgiven him even if he had displayed such shallowness before Syria and its largest famed jewel of a city began their slow, descent into a literal inferno, a man-made infernal region, of fire and brimstone in the form of daily rain of incendiary bombs.
But for Gary Johnson to share our shrinking space in the last few years and not to be aware of how Aleppo became the Capital of Pain in the world is beyond tolerance. For the edification and discomfort of all those who either did not listen to the exchange or read it in full, as it unfolded on MSNBC’s program “Morning Joe” between columnist Mike Barnicle and Johnson, here it is :
Barnicle: What would you do, if you were elected, about Aleppo?
Johnson: (quizzingly) About…?
Barnicle: (pronouncing slowly) Aleppo.
Johnson: (with a look of puzzlement bordering on trepidation): And what is Aleppo?
Barnicle: (somewhat startled) You are kidding.
Barnicle: Aleppo is in Syria. (He continued after a brief pause) It’s the epicenter of the
Johnson: (trying to regain his composure) O.K. I got it. Got it.
Johnson: Well, with regard to Syria, um, I do think that it’s a mess. I think that the only
Way that we deal with Syria is to join hands with Russia.
Aleppo was not even a fleeting concern during a full hour of discussion with candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in a forum devoted to national security issuesHisham Melhem
We are the hollow men
What is Aleppo? Aleppo is Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old boy who was pulled out of the rubble of his home in Aleppo after it was bombed in mid-August by Syrian or Russian warplanes. Millions of people, but not you Mr. Johnson saw his expressionless face coated with a mixture of blood and gray dust gazing at us and seeing through our hollow souls, for “we are the hollow men” that T.S. Eliot wrote about almost a century ago. I would like to inform you Mr. Johnson that Omran was scarred but survived, unlike his 10-year-old brother, Ali, who died few days later, of his injuries.
What is Aleppo? Aleppo is Abu al-Ward, Arabic for the father of the roses, the last man standing, with his 13 year old son Ibrahim in the last garden in Aleppo, fighting destruction and desolation with flowers, roses and plants, trying in his own way to affirm life in the midst of devastation. I regret to inform you Mr. Johnson that last May, the barrel bombs of Assad the man who breathes fire and brimstone, claimed Abu al-Ward and the garden is no more, and Ibrahim has begun his endless wandering while wondering what will become of him and his cruel world.
Ibrahim, like the younger Omran might as well be living in a different universe, because we only get a fleeting glimpse of people like them once in a great while. World powers and regional powers and their numerous proxies may be fighting on Syria’s soil and turning its once green landscapes into red, and crowding its skies with fire spewing fighters and bombers, but somehow the Syrian people are alone, just as Omran was alone in his eternity of few seconds gazing at us and searing us, just as Ibrahim was alone when we last saw him praying over his father’s grave.
Hapless ignorance and willful ignorance
Candidate Johnson’s question: what is Aleppo went beyond his ignorance and intellectual laziness, for he essentially and unknowingly expressed the state of mind of most of those who consider themselves members of the political establishment in Washington. Aleppo was not even a fleeting concern during a full hour of discussion with candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in a forum devoted to national security issues, only few hours before Johnson was hit in the face by the reality of Aleppo.
Trump’s knowledge of Aleppo’s agony is probably one tiny notch better than Johnson’s, but he is as averse to leading and doing something useful, creative and assertive as President Obama is, and as naïve as Johnson AND President Obama in betting on hollow Russian promises of pursuing a political outcome and military coordination against the common enemies of the Islamic State ISIS and the former al-Nusra front. As for Hillary Clinton, she will essentially continue Obama’s overall approach to Syria, but might show more resolve.
Candidate Johnson’s ignorance is inexcusable, but in fairness it is not lethal. Gary Johnson was ignorant of the tragedy of Aleppo, but President Obama is guilty of brazen willful ignorance of the agony of Aleppo and knows who are the local, regional and international tormentors of Aleppo and the rest of Syria. One year after Russia’s military intervention in Syria, a bold move that was misinterpreted by the Obama administration which wanted to convince itself that Russia has fallen in the middle of a Syrian quagmire.
Nothing could be further from the truth. That initial wishful thinking disappeared gradually and in its place there emerged a new kind (and more dangerous) wishful thinking which could lead to joint Russian-American military operations against the anti-Assad Jihadists.
Russia has been trying very hard to legitimize its military intervention in Syria (and by extension, in the Ukraine) by convincing the White House of such tactical military cooperation in Syria. And yet, Russia’s promises and pledges to the US in Syria are as solid as the promises of Assad to Russia that he will ease or suspend direct attacks on civilian targets. For a full year Putin has been using his armed forces to practice live ammunition military attacks against Assad’s opposition groups and the civilians who support them.
Neither the resumption of political talks nor the Cessation of Hostilities in which the Russians were very instrumental has worked. But these moves, like this week’s temporary cease fire in the Aleppo area reflect the reality that for the past year it is Russia that has been calling the shots in Syria politically and militarily and the US lacks the leverage necessary for it to regain the initiative assuming that’s what the Obama Administration would like to achieve.
Words and deeds
Judging by the history of such agreements in Syria, it is not likely that this recent one will be implemented honorably by Russia and more importantly by the Assad regime and its close allies; Iran and Hezbollah. The Assad regime and its allies have been engaged in a brutal war of ethnic cleansing in both the Damascus and Aleppo environs.
The war on the civilians is succeeding in driving the mostly Sunni population out of these two key regions, which are essential for Assad to maintain control of what is known as “useful Syria” which is composed of the coastal (predominantly Alawite region) and a corridor along the Syrian-Lebanese borders that includes the cities of Homs and Hama linking the greater Damascus area with the coastal region and all the way to Aleppo.
The agreement may hold temporarily, but in the absence of a true and clear road map to a post Assad political transition that is acceptable to most opposition forces, nothing of lasting value is likely to be achieved. It is true that Russia would like to reach an agreement, even a temporary one with an administration that is in its twilight moment, but in fact all the players in Syria, the region and beyond are treating the Obama administration as one that is marking time.
The shame of Syria and the ghosts of Aleppo will haunt President Obama for the rest of his life, and his abandonment of Syria will irreparably tarnish his legacy. What candidate Johnson has said and what he did not know was inexcusable, but what President Obama knew about Syria and Aleppo (when was the last time Obama addressed the calamity of Aleppo?) and the little incomplete and halfhearted things that he did, and most importantly the things he promised to do and deliver, but did not in a clear and deliberate act of willful ignorance, are infinitely more damaging and more dangerous than anything candidate Johnson could say or do.
Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on US-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem