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'What is Aleppo?' presidential candidate asks – here's an explanation

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Gary Johnson is running for president. He's the Libertarian Party candidate, and is hoping to start getting 15 percent in the polls so he can be a part of the presidential debates.

Johnson was on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" Thursday, and was asked about the fighting and refugee crisis in Syria – specifically, the city of Aleppo (more on the conflict below).

Here's how the conversation went:

Mike Barnicle: "What would you do, if you were elected, about Aleppo?"

Johnson: "About?"

Barnicle: "Aleppo."

Johnson: "And what is Aleppo?"

Barnicle: (After about a second of silence) "You're kidding."

Johnson: "No."

Barnicle: "Aleppo is in Syria. It's the epicenter of the refugee crisis - "

Johnson: "OK got it, got it. Well with regard to Syria, I do think that it's a mess."

Johnson went on to explain that the U.S. intervening in regime change often brings about unintended, but bad, results. He also suggested partnering with Russia is the only way to quell the fighting in Syria, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people.

Host Joe Scarborough pressed Johnson again afterward however.

"Do your really think that foreign policy is so insignificant that somebody running for president of the United States shouldn't even know what Aleppo is, where Aleppo is, why Aleppo is so important?" Scarborough said.

Johnson continued making his case for the broader strategy in Syria, but the clip quickly spread. Aleppo was trending on Twitter in Minneapolis and the U.S., and there have now been dozens of stories about the gaffe.

Johnson was questioned about it afterward by Bloomberg reporter Mark Halperin:

"Knowing that there's a city between the two forces ... but not remembering or identifying that that's Aleppo, guilty," he said, later adding: "I'm incredibly frustrated with myself."

Johnson then put out a statement, saying in part:

"Yes, I understand the dynamics of the Syrian conflict – I talk about them every day. But hit with 'What about Aleppo,' I immediately was thinking about an acronym, not the Syrian conflict. I blanked. It happens, and it will happen again during the course of this campaign."

So, what IS Aleppo?

Aleppo is a city in the northwest region of Syria, and a decade ago was home to more than 2 million people. But since 2012, the ancient metropolis has been under constant siege.

More than 400,000 people have been killed, and cease-fires or other attempts to end the conflict have all failed, NBC News said in July. The fighting has led to massive groups of refugees attempting to flee the country – including 20,000 from the Aleppo area who gathered at the Turkish border last winter, the Independent reported.

The International Committee of the Red Cross says 8 million people in all of Syria have been displaced, and puts the number of refugees who have fled at about 4.5 million.

A Syrian writer who went to school in Aleppo, left in 2012, and returned in 2015 to visit, wrote about the stark difference in this piece for Variety.

"No words could have described my shock. The once bustling northern districts were now empty except for blocks of rubble with flags of the innumerable rebel groups flapping above. ...

Since the war, most of the old city’s neighborhoods had become inaccessible. Charred vehicles blockaded central streets. Trips that before the war took minutes had become seven-hour marathons, traversing hundreds of kilometers and dozens of checkpoints, each controlled by different warring groups. Regime snipers positioned atop the Citadel’s towers could survey huge areas of the city. Bodies caught in their cross fire might remain unburied for weeks, or months."

Who is fighting?

The city is at the center of a conflict between multiple groups, which started July 19, 2012, as part of the Syrian Civil War.

There is the pro-Syrian side and official Syrian military forces (led by President Bashar al-Assad, who is trying to maintain power). The country's military is getting support from Russia via air strikes as well, the Independent says.

Then there is the main opposition force, the Syrian National Coalition, which is trying to oust al-Assad, the Carnegie Middle East Center explains. This is who the U.S. has supported. America has also been bombing areas in Syria that are home to Islamic State militants and other extremists – though the U.S. has avoided targeting any of al-Assad's military forces, the BBC explained.

Also on the ground are more extreme Jihadist groups, like the Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (though ISIL doesn't have a foothold in the city itself).

The result of the fighting

Two days ago, Slate reported there were claims the Syrian government dropped barrels full of chlorine into a residential neighborhood, poisoning residents. And bombings from the air have hit a wide array of places, including a hospital last month in which a young boy was pulled from the rubble.

The image of the boy, covered in dust and blood and staring blankly, was shown all over the world, and brought a CNN reporter showing the image on-air to tears.

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The rebels meanwhile have been accused of recklessly shooting shrapnel-packed improvised mortars into government-controlled areas, the New Yorker recently wrote.

Reuters has this gallery of 50 photos, documenting the violence and carnage has done to the city in the past four years.

Is there an end in sight? If there is, it's not an easy one, the New York Times wrote last month.

"Whenever one side loses ground, its foreign backers increase their involvement, sending supplies or air support to prevent their favored player’s defeat. Then that side begins winning, which tends to prompt the other’s foreign backers to up their ante as well. Each escalation is a bit stronger than what came before, accelerating the killing without ever changing the war’s fundamental balance."

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