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Sean Bell: The West is now embroiled in widening Middle East conflict - but is it winnable?

Warfare is a brutal and unforgiving undertaking. 

However, the primary responsibility of any government is the protection of its people and its national interests, so military capability is a cornerstone of national capability.

But, military forces provide options and are a means to an end - not an end in itself - and when all other diplomatic and political options have been exhausted, the military create the security conditions in which political objectives can be realised.

Middle East crisis latest: US destroys Houthi anti-ship missiles

However, without clear political direction, the carnage and devastation that military forces incur lacks purpose. The consequences, as are flowing from Israel's continued ground assault of Gaza, are profound.

On that fateful day - 7 October 2023 - when Hamas forces killed over 1,200 Israelis and took 240 hostages, the US and UK resolutely supported Israel's right to self-defence.

The resulting Israeli military response was immediate and intensive, starting with aerial bombardments followed by a continuing ground offensive.

With Palestinian deaths now exceeding 24,000 and over 60,000 injuries, according to Gaza's health ministry - two-thirds of those believed to be children - the Israel Defence Forces claims that its military response seeks to defeat Hamas and ensure the long-term security of Israel.

However, despite most of the international community believing that the only long-term solution for regional stability is a two-state solution, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has now made clear that "Israel must have security control over all the territory west of the Jordan". In essence, a one-state solution with Israel in control.

It remains unclear how such an arrangement would work in practice without subjugation of the Palestinian people. And that does not appear to be the foundations of a lasting peace.

Israel expects its military action to continue for months to come, but where is the political strategy to underpin it?

Political ambiguity is not unique to Israel. The UK and US governments are also struggling to maintain a coherent response to the crisis in Gaza.

Hamas is no match militarily for the IDF, and, although the "Gaza Metro" - the labyrinth of Hamas tunnels underneath Gaza - will slow IDF progress, given time the IDF will prevail.

This is why the US vetoed the recent UN Security Council resolution calling for an immediate end to hostilities, ostensibly to allow time for Israel to achieve its objectives.

Read more:
The deep roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
Could Hezbollah-Israel clashes lead to a wider war?
How did this war happen?

But in the same way the US and the UK support Israel, so Iran supports Hamas. By supporting the Houthi attacks on the Red Sea merchant shipping, Iran is increasing pressure on the US to stop the war in Gaza.

This is an inconvenient truth for the US and UK governments.

Indeed, the UK prime minister said the US/UK strikes on Houthi military capability were "completely unrelated" to the Israel-Gaza conflict, rather "a direct response to the Houthis' attacks on international shipping" and that "we shouldn't fall for their malign narrative".

Yet hours later Lord Cameron met Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian on Wednesday at the World Economic Forum where the Iranian position was made clear: stop the war in Gaza and the Houthi attacks will cease.

Directing UK military forces to attack Houthi targets is a serious escalation - the use of military force to achieve a political objective.

The stated UK political "end-state" is to ensure freedom of passage for maritime vessels in the Red Sea, but the only way to achieve that objective is to tackle the cause, not the symptom.

Although some form of military action against the Houthis was probably inevitable, it was also unlikely to "solve the problem".

Indeed, the continued Houthi assaults bear testament to the fact that military action is unlikely to stop the attacks.

It seems very unlikely that the West could countenance a one-state, Israel-led, solution to the Gaza war, yet by providing unequivocal political support to Israel, and its intended political ambitions, the West has found itself embroiled in military action and a widening regional conflict.

And one that, in the case of the Houthis, most military experts predict is unwinnable.

Where is the grand-strategic political leadership? A solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will not be achievable by the main protagonists - the scars run too deep for compromise.

However, unless international political leadership engages to create the foundations for a lasting two-state solution, the West risks being an enabler for Israel to impose its own ambitions, which will almost certainly prove untenable in the long term.

Meanwhile, the West is now part of a wider regional confrontation without clear political objectives beyond deterring the Houthis, which appears at best a naive ambition.

Where is the international diplomacy and political gravitas for which the UK was once famous? The instrument of last resort has now been unleashed, but to what end?