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‘Take Out Their Families’: Trump Fulfills Criminal Campaign Promise as Hundreds Die in Latest US-Led Syria Strikes

While campaigning for president in late 2015, Donald Trump promised a bloody escalation of the US-led war against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, vowing to “bomb the shit out of” IS militants and “take out their families.” Targeting terrorists’ wives, children and other relatives is a war crime under international law, but Trump doubled down on his promise and since taking office has presided over a dramatic increase in civilian deaths in six of the seven countries subjected to America’s open-ended war against terrorism. This increase has been most acute in Iraq and, most recently, in Syria, where hundreds of innocent civilians have died in US-led air strikes in recent months.

Although US and coalition forces are not deliberately targeting civilians, many — if not most — of those killed in the latest strikes have been women and children. According to local and international media and human rights monitor groups, at least 271 and possibly more than twice as many civilians have been killed in nearly 900 US-confirmed air strikes in Deir Ezzor province in October and November. The vast majority of these raids have been carried out by American warplanes; British, French, Dutch and other coalition members have also participated.

The UK-based monitor group Airwars and local and international media outlets report many victims of these recent bombings have been wives, children and other relatives of IS fighters. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported 32 IS family members, including 12 women and 13 children, died in a November 11 strike on Al Shaafa, while an attack on Al Kashma that same day killed at least 35 civilians, mostly women and children, according to Step News Agency and other outlets. Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) and local media reported that a November 15 attack on Al Boubardan killed 18 members of a single family, including 14 children and three women.

SOHR, Amnesty International and other monitor groups and media reported 36 relatives of IS fighters, including 17 children and 12 women, died in November 17 strikes east of Hajin. Free Deir Ezzor Radio later reported the civilian death toll from the attack had risen to 53. That same day, Airwars and local media said at least 12 and as many as 24 civilians were killed in another strike on Hajin.

Trump was apparently serious when he said in December 2015 that he wanted to kill IS fighters’ innocent relatives. At the height of the race for the Republican presidential nomination he said:

“When you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families. They care about their lives, don’t kid yourself. But they say they don’t care about their lives. You have to take out their families.”

Shortly after taking office, Trump began loosening the military’s rules of engagement that were meant to protect innocent life. According to a Washington Post report, the president was unimpressed by the development of special CIA drone munitions designed to limit civilian casualties, and when watching video of a previous drone strike in which the agency delayed attack until the targeted militant walked away from a house with his family inside the president asked, “Why did you wait?”

The deliberate or indiscriminate killing of civilians is a war crime under Protocol Iof the Geneva Conventions and other international law including the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

In May 2017, Defense Secretary James Mattis — a retired Marine Corps general who earned the nickname “Mad Dog” during the atrocity-laden 2004 battle of Fallujah, Iraq — announced that the United States was shifting from a policy of “attrition” to one of “annihilation” in the fight against IS. Mattis dismissed concerns about what such an escalation would mean for innocent civilians caught in the crossfire. “Civilian casualties are a fact of life in this sort of situation,” he asserted. Mattis’ announcement came just weeks after what was perhaps the deadliest single US air strike in terms of civilian lives lost since the Vietnam war, an attack on the Jadida neighborhood of Mosul, Iraq that reportedly killed nearly 300 people.

US military and government officials claim to take great care to avoid harming innocent people. However, the US has been criticized not only for the alarming number of civilian casualties its forces have caused but also for undercounting and failing to investigate incidents in which civilians are killed and wounded. While Syrian government forces are responsible for the vast majority of civilian deaths during that country’s seven-year civil war, Airwars estimates at least 6,716 and as many as 10,268 Syrian and Iraqi civilians are likely to have died in more than 30,000 US-led air strikes since former president Barack Obama launched Operation Inherent Resolve, the anti-IS campaign, in June 2014. Russian air strikes have killed as many as 8,000 Syrian civilians, with Turkish bombing adding as many as 1,200 civilian deaths to the grisly toll, according to SOHR.

In the wider, unending 17-year US-led war on terror, the death toll is far higher. A recently-released report by Brown University’s Costs of War project estimates that the war has claimed more than half a million people — both combatants and civilians — in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan alone. In 2015, the US medical advocacy group Physicians for Social Responsibility released a study claiming a “conservative” figure of 1.3 million direct or indirect war deaths in those three countries, with the study’s authors adding that the real figure could “be in excess of 2 million.”

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Brett Wilkins is editor-at-large for US news at Digital Journal. Based in San Francisco, his work covers issues of social justice, human rights and war and peace. 

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