Is Trump committing war crimes in Iraq and Syria?

Civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria have reportedly spiked since Trump took power. What is going on?

2016: A Picture and its Story
Civilians run in panic after coalition aerial bombardment hit ISIL positions in Mosul, Iraq [Reuters]

“Donald Trump on terrorists: ‘Take out their families’.” Such headlines began to surface as early as December 2015, when the real estate tycoon accelerated his presidential campaign. Donald Trump was emphatic, as clear in his diction as his arrested vocabulary allows: “The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families.” Was he being rhetorical or did he actually mean to target civilians? 

Soon after Trump began to bomb Iraq and Syria, a few months into his presidency, some journalists were quick to make the connection between his campaign promises and his wartime delivery: “Trump said he would ‘take out’ the families of ISIS fighters. Did an air strike in Syria do just that?”

The details soon started to come out: A monitoring group said that air raids from a US-backed coalition on a town in Syria had killed a large number of relatives of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) fighters in May 2017. Were these civilians “collateral damage” or were they being deliberately targeted? 

Only a few weeks later, the scope of Trump’s war on Muslim civilians became fully evident. In an official report, UN war crimes investigators said US-led coalition air strikes on the ISIL stronghold of Raqqa were causing “staggering loss of life“. 

OPINION: Trump is a symptom, not the disease

According to the report, “hundreds of civilians are reported to have been killed since March [2017].” UN officials further added: “We note in particular that the intensification of aerial bombardment, which have paved the ground for an SDF advance in Raqqa, has resulted not only in staggering loss of civilian life, but has also led to 160,000 civilians fleeing their homes and becoming internally displaced.” 

Maiming and murdering innocent Muslims en masse, forcing them to run for their lives: Is that not a war crime? 

Intentional murder or not?

Even American journalists now started to ask the obvious question: “Why is the US killing so many civilians in Syria and Iraq?” On 19 June, the New York Times finally revealed: 

“Two weeks ago, the American military finally acknowledged what nongovernmental monitoring groups had claimed for months: The United States-led coalition fighting the Islamic State since August 2014 has been killing Iraqi and Syrian civilians at astounding rates in the four months since President Trump assumed office. The result has been a ‘staggering loss of civilian life’, as the head of the United Nations’ independent Commission of Inquiry into the Syrian civil war said last week.”

Donald Trump as commander-in-chief of US armed forces is deliberately, decidedly, purposefully, targeting Muslim civilians.


The truth of massive Muslim civilian casualties slaughtered by Trump’s military was now on full display, but the main question remained unanswered: Was Trump unable to stop killing civilian Muslims or had he ordered them to be deliberately targeted? 

After talking about “taking out their families”, Trump went on justify his proposal by saying that relatives of ISIL members “know exactly what [is] going on”. In his opinion, ISIL fighters “do care … about their families’ lives”. 

There remains little doubt: Donald Trump as commander-in-chief of US armed forces is deliberately, decidedly, purposefully, targeting Muslim civilians. Are these not war crimes? 

The charge of “war crime” is a serious one and should not be taken lightly. It is the task of criminal lawyers and legal scholars to consider the evidence and make a judgment in a court of law such as the International Criminal Court at The Hague. But the depth of Donald Trump’s hatred of Muslims, his total disregard for Muslim lives and his willingness to accommodate large-scale civilian casualties, while appreciating “the beauty” of his chocolate cake is now matter of public record

Hate crimes

Before we get to that court of law, there is another charge, something called “hate crime” – a criminal act motivated by racist hatred – which we need to consider. Over the short period of time, Trump has been in the global eye, we have a rather complete picture of his hatred of Muslims as Muslims. 

In his racist, conspiratorially infested mind, Trump believes Muslims hate him and hate all other Americans. “I think Islam hates us,” he once told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. He believes “tremendous hatred” is definitive to the religion. He maintained the war was against radical Islam, but said, “it’s very hard to define. It’s very hard to separate. Because you don’t know who’s who.” What could this possibly mean other than Muslims as Muslims hate him and his ilk and, as a result, they need to be treated as enemies? Just by being Muslim, they are the enemy and must be banned, eliminated, and forced into indignity of refugee camps.  

It is now a matter of public record that Trump wishes to ban Muslims from the US. If a Muslim is even suspected of being involved in a violent act, he is only too eager to jump to the conclusion and denounce “Islamic extremism” that someone has taught him is a good euphemism for “Muslims”. But if Muslims are victims of such acts he could not care less. 

Let’s see now: He goes on a rampage, mass murdering innocent Muslim civilians in Iraq and Syria. He arms Saudi Arabia and Israel to their teeth to kill more Muslims in Yemen and Palestine. He drops “the mother of all bombs” on Afghanistan. He thinks Muslims hate him (or as he puts it, “Islam hates us”.) He wants to ban Muslims from the US. What else do we need to determine whether he is guilty of a hate crime?

What about an ideology that drives him to hate Muslims and wants to murder them all en masse. Who might be the source of such an ideology? Who is sitting right next to Trump in the White House as his guru on matters Islamic? Well, there is Steve Bannon. 

The notoriety of Steve Bannon as a malignant crusader has now been fully documented. “Trump’s right-hand man Steve Bannon called for Christian holy war,” one headline read, “Now he’s on the National Security Council”. At a Christian conference held at the Vatican in 2014, Bannon is documented as having said: “We’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict”. He warned his Christian audience: “We are in an outright war against jihadists, Islam, Islamic fascism”. 

OPINION: The Muslim as a ‘Manchurian candidate’

Bannon’s so-called “documentaries” mobilising white supremacists against Muslims, and his reading list, all made up of notorious, racist, apocalyptic warmongers, have also been documented. “Bannon’s readings tend to have one thing in common,” according to an article by Politico, “the view that technocrats have put Western civilization on a downward trajectory and that only a shock to the system can reverse its decline. And they tend to have a dark, apocalyptic tone that at times echoes Bannon’s own public remarks over the years – a sense that humanity is at a hinge point in history”. 

Trump and his Christian-Zionist guru are not the only symptom of this racist sickness in the US. They are the crowning achievement of it. From Bill Maher and his sidekick, Sam Harris, to Niall Ferguson and his wife Ayaan Hirsi Ali to the whole phenomenon of New Atheism are the foregrounding from which this particular disease has now metastasised in both Europe and the US, with Israel as the epicentre of its common ground. 

What we witness in this “staggering loss of life” among innocent civilian Muslims at the receiving end of Trump’s bombs may or may not amount to war crimes – that is for legal scholars and a court of law to decide. But they are certainly evidence of hate crimes, which if it were targeted towards one person it would be a matter of criminal investigation. But when it comes to countless thousands ordered to be killed by the President of the United States it is called “war on terror“. 

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.