The U.S. Isn’t Just Backing the Yemen War—It’s Helping Trap Those Forced to Flee

How the United States is helping Oman militarize its border with Yemen.

Khury Peterson-Smith September 20, 2018

TOPSHOT - A photo taken on March 18, 2018, shows a Yemeni child walking in the rubble of a building that was destroyed in an air strike in the southern Yemeni city of Taez. (AHMAD AL-BASHA/AFP/Getty Images)

By now, the images are infa­mous: stunned, blood­ied Yemeni chil­dren arriv­ing at the hos­pi­tal after their sum­mer camp bus was bombed by Sau­di air­craft. The Unit­ed States is deeply impli­cat­ed in that August 9 attack, which killed 54 peo­ple — most of them children

The wars that the United States is carrying out and supporting include wars on the freedom of movement and those who seek to exercise it.

Frag­ments from the bomb bear the labels of U.S. weapons man­u­fac­tur­ers. The inde­fen­si­ble nature of the bomb­ing — there were no com­bat­ants any­where in sight — has gar­nered head­lines and even atten­tion on Capi­tol Hill, open­ing a new con­ver­sa­tion about U.S. involve­ment in the years-long siege of Yemen by a coali­tion head­ed by Sau­di Ara­bia and the Unit­ed Arab Emirates.

The coali­tion frames its war as an inter­ven­tion on behalf of Abdrab­buh Mansur Hadi, the man they rec­og­nize as the legit­i­mate pres­i­dent of Yemen. Sau­di Ara­bia and the UAE claim to be tar­get­ing the Houthis, the oppo­si­tion group on the oth­er side of Yemen’s civ­il war that con­trols the coun­try’s cap­i­tal, and that has alleged ties with Iran. The images from the school bus attack, how­ev­er, reveal the actu­al tar­gets of the coalition’s air power. 

While both the Houthis and the coali­tion take actions with destruc­tive con­se­quences for Yemen’s pop­u­la­tion, the over­whelm­ing blame for the dev­as­ta­tion and the human­i­tar­i­an cri­sis lies with the Unit­ed States, Sau­di Ara­bia and the UAE.

The Unit­ed States is sup­ply­ing the air­craft to Sau­di Ara­bia and the UAE, the pre­ci­sion muni­tions they’re drop­ping, intel­li­gence and mid-air refu­el­ing of the coali­tion war planes. The Unit­ed States also con­tin­ues to car­ry out mil­i­tary oper­a­tions in Yemen direct­ly, with its own spe­cial forces and air strikes. But even when Amer­i­can per­son­nel are not per­son­al­ly drop­ping the bombs, they seem to be involved in all of the oth­er steps of the coalition’s operations.

On the same day of the attack on the school bus, and not far away, U.S. per­son­nel were fin­ish­ing up anoth­er, qui­eter activ­i­ty that has received far less attention. 

From August 5 through 9, a unit of the Wis­con­sin Nation­al Guard that was assigned to U.S. Army Cen­tral con­duct­ed a week-long train­ing with mem­bers of the Roy­al Army of Oman’s Bor­der Guard Brigade in Haima, Oman. The exer­cis­es were part of Oman’s mil­i­ta­riza­tion of its bor­der with Yemen — with fund­ing and oth­er assis­tance from the Unit­ed States.

In oth­er words, not only is the Unit­ed States. help­ing the coali­tion bomb Yemeni civil­ians. It’s help­ing trap the refugees flee­ing that bombing.

Walls around the world

Before, it was clear that the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment want­ed no Yemeni refugees in the Unit­ed States. Yemen has been list­ed in all three iter­a­tions of the Trump admin­is­tra­tion’s anti-Mus­lim trav­el ban. That was unjust enough. In Oman, the Unit­ed States is help­ing to pre­vent Yeme­nis from leav­ing their coun­try at all.

In August, Con­gress passed the Nation­al Defense Autho­riza­tion Act (NDAA) — its mil­i­tary bud­get — for the fis­cal year of 2019. The Act calls on the Sec­re­tary of State to cer­ti­fy that Sau­di Ara­bia and the UAE are tak­ing steps to min­i­mize civil­ian casu­al­ties, among oth­er mea­sures to assuage qualms that Con­gress may have about con­tin­u­ing the U.S. mid-air refu­el­ing program. 

The restric­tions laid out in the Act have come into the spot­light as Trump has sig­naled his refusal to abide by them, spark­ing a dis­pute between mem­bers of Con­gress and the White House about who has the author­i­ty to make deci­sions about for­eign affairs — a fight that has been fueled by the hor­ren­dous school bus bombing.

But the same Act also qui­et­ly expands the list of coun­tries that the Unit­ed States sup­plies aid to for the pur­pose of mil­i­ta­riz­ing their bor­ders. A pro­vi­sion was added to the mil­i­tary bud­get in 2016 that appro­pri­ates such fund­ing to cer­tain for­eign coun­tries for bor­der secu­ri­ty oper­a­tions.” The list of coun­tries — each of which is eli­gi­ble for up to $150 mil­lion in the pro­gram — includes Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, and Jor­dan. The 2019 bud­get includes Pak­istan and Oman.

What do these states have in com­mon? They share bor­ders with coun­tries from which mil­lions of refugees emerge or flow through. Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon and Jor­dan neigh­bor Libya, Syr­ia and Iraq. Pak­istan bor­ders Afghanistan.

Oman’s steps to secure its bor­der” sound famil­iar. In a trend tak­en up by states around the world — and cham­pi­oned by the White House — Oman is build­ing a wall. Con­struc­tion began five years ago and is slat­ed to con­tin­ue for anoth­er three years.

The U.S. has promised $2.5 mil­lion in aid to Oman for 2019 in a pack­age under the head­ing Peace and Secu­ri­ty.” And a flur­ry of meet­ings between U.S. and Omani offi­cials sug­gest deep­er coor­di­na­tion could be underway.

In March, Defense Sec­re­tary Mat­tis met with Omani Sul­tan Qaboos bin Said Al Said and Defense Min­is­ter Badr bin Saud al Busai­di in Mus­cat to dis­cuss enhanc­ing mil­i­tary coop­er­a­tion. At the end of July, Omani For­eign Min­is­ter Yusuf bin Alawi trav­eled to Wash­ing­ton and met with Mat­tis at the Pen­ta­gon, Sec­re­tary of State Pom­peo, and mem­bers of Con­gress. Con­ver­sa­tions focused on the bilat­er­al rela­tion­ship in regard to the ongo­ing cri­sis in Yemen.

And then there was the joint train­ing in Haima.

Beyond the Bombings

Migra­tion is dif­fi­cult for Yeme­nis. Yemen was the poor­est coun­try in the Mid­dle East before the war began in 2015. While there are more than 2 mil­lion inter­nal­ly dis­placed peo­ple in Yemen, pover­ty pre­vents Yeme­nis from leav­ing the country. 

Despite the many obsta­cles, more than 190,000 Yeme­nis have fled to neigh­bor­ing coun­tries accord­ing the UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency. Many of those who have left are in Oman, so the mea­sures the coun­try is tak­ing with its U.S. ally will put up new obsta­cles to would-be refugees.

Remark­ably, despite the night­mar­ish con­di­tions that the Unit­ed States, Sau­di Ara­bia and the UAE have made in Yemen, it’s also the case that more than 280,000 peo­ple—most­ly from the Horn of Africa — have sought refuge in Yemen. The mea­sures that the Unit­ed States is sup­port­ing with its allies, then, are not only dev­as­tat­ing Yeme­nis. The cru­el­ty of those actions extends to refugees from out­side of Yemen who are now effec­tive­ly stuck in the same con­di­tions that are dis­plac­ing — but impris­on­ing — Yemenis.

The wars that the Unit­ed States is car­ry­ing out and sup­port­ing include wars on the free­dom of move­ment and those who seek to exer­cise it. From the caging of chil­dren and adults at the bor­der with Mex­i­co to the bomb­ing of chil­dren in Yemen with Amer­i­can weapons, this sum­mer has demon­strat­ed to the world that the Unit­ed States isn’t only dri­ving peo­ple from their homes — it’s pre­vent­ing them from escap­ing to safety.

It is sig­nif­i­cant that U.S. sup­port for the Sau­di bomb­ing is get­ting more crit­i­cal atten­tion. But from walls to trav­el bans, our gov­ern­men­t’s dis­as­trous activ­i­ties extend beyond the bomb­ings alone. We need to iden­ti­fy and expose Washington’s many attacks on peo­ple around the world — and resist them all.

This arti­cle was pro­duced in part­ner­ship with For­eign Pol­i­cy In Focus.

Khury Peter­son-Smith is the Michael Rat­ner Mid­dle East Fel­low at the Insti­tute for Pol­i­cy Studies.
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