Western arrogance and miscalculation has led to an uptick in hostilities across the Middle East and no-one this time is taking much notice of America’s ‘big stick’. Foreign Editor David Pratt reports

IT was never supposed to play out this way, not according to the Israeli government anyway. This time around the old “mowing the grass” metaphor so favoured in the past by Israeli officials to describe their strategy of keeping Palestinian militants in Gaza down didn’t begin to convey what was coming Hamas’s way.

For in the words of Israel’s own war cabinet, this time Hamas would be “wiped off the face of the Earth,” and never for one moment did the government of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu doubt their country’s military capacity to do just that.

Why should they b given Israel’s regional “superpower” status?

Likewise, Israel’s allies in the West, notably the US and UK, equally never doubted for a moment that should things get out of hand then they would always be able to rein in any overzealous Israeli military campaign.

This was how it was handled in the past and this is how it would be handled again, was the prevailing view, even given the scale of Hamas’s murderous attack on October 7.

The only difference this time was that Hamas would be eliminated and a new security apparatus for Gaza would be put in place preventing any regional escalation and keeping the Middle East in check.

Job done and normal diplomatic business would be resumed.

Such was the conventional thinking in Washington, London, Riyadh and elsewhere in the wake of October 7, even if just to be on the safe side the US sent its newest, most advanced aircraft carrier to the eastern Mediterranean.

The Herald: President Joe Biden


America’s ‘big stick’

The USS Gerald Ford would be a signal that America, if necessary, still meant military business and was determined to deter Iran and its myriad proxy militias in the region for upping the ante.

But now, as we mark 100 days into the war in Gaza, no-one, it seems, is taking much notice of America’s “big stick”.

Hamas has far from been eviscerated and fights on.

In the interim, meanwhile, tens of thousands of Palestinians have been killed and millions more displaced.

Then there is the ominous reality that an even bigger war between Israel and Hezbollah is only a blink away, and elsewhere in the region other Iranian backed militias in places like Syria and Iraq now have Western interests in their sights.

And, as if this was not escalation enough, US and UK warplanes are now bombing Yemen as the Red Sea comes under threat from Houthi fighters attempting to turn it into a maritime no-go zone that could put a choke lock on world trade.

Along with Hamas and Hezbollah, Yemen’s Houthis have stepped up as part of the Iranian-led “Axis of Resistance” opposed to Israel and its allies.

From Jerusalem to Washington, London to Riyadh, it’s a fair bet that those in the respective corridors of power in these countries – and others – never expected things to play out this way.

That very thing Western and Middle East policy had so sought to avoid, a regional escalation, has now become an unwelcome reality.

Such now is the fear of a full-blown conflict in one of the most politically fragile and strategically important parts of the world, that security analysts to energy markets, shipping companies to oil suppliers, already show signs of being thoroughly spooked and rattled.

The Herald: A child watches as a mourner cries over the bodies of family members at al-Najar hospital in Rafah in the Gaza Strip after they were killed during Israeli bombardment, on January 10



Western failings

The obvious trigger of the war in Gaza aside for a moment, the current crisis, many argue, has laid bare what for some time has been the failings of Western policy in the Middle East. And at the heart of this failure, say some analysts, are the United States’ main regional partnerships.

“The two crucial US partners in the region, Israel and Saudi Arabia, are liabilities to the United States, not assets,” says says Jon Hoffman a foreign-policy analyst at the Washington, DC-based Cato Institute.

“Although the two states maintain considerable political, economic, and social differences, they both consistently undermine US interests and the values that the United States claims to stand for. Washington should fundamentally reorient its approach to both countries, moving from unconditional support to arm’s-length relationships,” Hoffman argued recently in an article in Foreign Policy magazine, expressing a view shared by other Middle East watchers.

Far from leveraging its relationship with Israel, Washington, says Hoffman, has continued its “blank-cheque approach” to Israel, providing more than $14 billion in military aid in a package approved in November which risked massive escalation in the process.

As for America’s other regional partner, Saudi Arabia, Hoffman reminds us that it remains one of the most autocratic countries in the world and is “a principal source of political, economic, and societal disorder across the Middle East”.

In other words, with two key partners like this in the region the scene was set whereby America and others who cosied up to Jerusalem and Riyadh, while all but ignoring other countries concerns in the Middle East, would eventually face some kind of backlash.

Anyone who doubts the extent to which Washington had taken its eye off the ball in the region needs only consider remarks made by US national security adviser Jake Sullivan last September, who asseretd that “the Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in two decades”.

“Now challenges remain, but the amount of time that I have to spend on crisis and conflict in the Middle East today compared to any of my predecessors going back to 9/11 is significantly reduced,” maintained Sullivan in a statement that has aged both horribly and embarrassingly for the Biden administration.

The Herald: Palestinians line up for food in Rafah last Tuesday during the ongoing Israeli air and ground offensive on Gaza


Volatile region

SULLIVAN’S remarks act as a sharp reminder of the dangers of diplomatic complacency and inaction in a region almost constantly in a state of volatile political flux.

Now, the United States along with the UK and other Western allies are reaping the whirlwind for such diplomatic miscalculation and neglect. The Houthi “problem” in the Red Sea is by far the most pressing for now.

Backed by their sponsor Iran, the Houthis in the past have proven resistant to attacks from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), suggesting that they will not be quickly subdued by the American and British strikes.

As Michelle Wiese Bockmann, principal analyst at Lloyd’s Intelligence List observed writing in the Financial Times a few days ago, the Houthis’ tactics “show how swiftly the vulnerabilities of key trade chokepoints can be exploited to upset global supply chains, causing maximum disruption”.

Before the Houthi attack, the Red Sea was usually one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. But by mid-December, the world’s four largest shipping companies – MSC, Maersk, CMA-CGM, and COSCO – had suspended the Red Sea transit.

In response, under what’s been dubbed Operation Prosperity Guardian, five warships from the US and UK now

patrol the Red Sea to thwart the attacks, yet so far this effort has failed to secure safe passage for the 12% of world trade that crosses Bab-el-Mandeb Strait to the Suez Canal.

In Britain, there have been calls to increase the Royal Navy’s involvement, with one newspaper columnist calling for the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth to be deployed to the Red Sea, and for “offensive strikes against into Houthi territory”.

Last Friday, America and Britain responded with more than 60 sea and air attacks on Houthi targets in Yemen in an attempt to restore open passage and yesterday the attacks continued with what the Americans said was a strike on a “radar site”.

President Joe Biden has threatened further military action and said America would not allow “hostile actors to imperil freedom of navigation in one of the world’s most critical commercial routes”.

But critics of the UK-US military operation say they risk further escalation and little mention has been made of years of brutal war in Yemen, sustained in many instances by the US and Britain, and resulting in a death toll of hundreds of thousands.

They point also to what they say are double standards in that little action has been taken to lift Israel’s long-time maritime blockade of Gaza which, if currently removed, could assist in the supply of humanitarian aid to the devastated coastal strip.

‘Harsh and painful’

In Yemen itself, meanwhile, the Houthis – whose official name is Ansar Allah – have been characteristically brazen, insisting that their response to the “hostile actions” by the US and Britain, would be “very harsh and painful”.

According to one former US national intelligence officer for the Near East, the Western strikes are “unlikely to immediately halt Houthi aggression.”

“That will almost certainly mean having to continue to respond to Houthi strikes, and potentially with increasing aggression,” Jonathan Panikoff was cited by the US-based magazine Politico as saying.

“The Houthis view themselves as having little to lose, emboldened militarily by Iranian provisions of support and confident the US will not entertain a ground war,” Panikoff added.

While the Houthis claim that their attacks on military and civilian vessels are tied to the ongoing conflict in Gaza and are aimed specifically at those vessels connected with Israel, one senior US official briefing reporters in Washington last Friday dismissed such claims as “baseless and illegitimate”.

But as Politico magazine has highlighted, the escalation has thrown the spotlight on the difficulty both Washington and London have “in striving to distinguish their bid to deter the Houthis in the Red Sea from the war in Gaza, fearful that merging the two will hand Tehran a propaganda advantage in the Middle East.

“The Houthis and Iran are keen to accomplish the reverse.”

Biden’s problem, then, and that of Washington’s allies like the UK, is how to balance responding to hostile action with trying to contain the Israel-Hamas conflict as Israeli officials warn that their military onslaught in Gaza will continue for months. So far, Israel has failed to achieve its military objectives.

Despite entering the Gaza operation with the most advanced capabilities in the detection and destruction of tunnels of any army in the world, Hamas’s fighters are still operating from them – resulting in an increasing number of casualties among Israeli soldiers.

Little also has been heard of those hostages still said to be held by Hamas in Gaza.

With Hamas still functioning – albeit diminished – the only thing Israel has achieved to date in Gaza is a humanitarian catastrophe. Even the hoped for mass exodus of Palestinians into Egypt so desired by those Israeli nationalists and right-wingers within Netanyahu’s government has failed to materialise.

As veteran regional reporter David Hearst pointed out in the online UK-based news website Middle East Eye the other day, “there have been no attempts to storm the border with Egypt at Rafah. Nor is there any evidence, so far, of a popular revolt against Hamas”.

Meanwhile, as the fighting continues in Gaza, there are other flashpoints too for the Israelis and their US and western allies.

Border clashes

THERE are rising concerns, for example, that border clashes between Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and Israel are getting perilously close to spiralling into full-blown conflict while in Iraq, Iranian-backed militias like al-Hashd al-Shaabi have been targeting US troops just as they have been in Syria. In all, there have been at least 115 attacks on US military personnel throughout the Middle East by Iranian proxies since October 17.

This weekend, as the 100-day mark passes since Israel launched its offensive in Gaza, there has been much talk from Jerusalem of the war “transitioning” to a new phase with fewer troops, less bombing, and more use of “targeted strikes”.

But the evidence on the ground in Gaza suggests otherwise.

Likewise from the Israel-Lebanon border to Iraq, Syria, and especially in the Red Sea and Yemen, the shooting war is heating up.

As Middle East Eye rightly pointed out on Friday: “If anything, these 100 days feel like the opening shots of a much larger and longer war, which would be catastrophic for everyone –both Jews and Arabs.”

Watching events unfold right now with diplomacy nowhere to be seen and war-war rather than jaw-jaw the order of the day, it would be hard to disagree with such a bleak assessment.