A professor in the School of International Service at American University once explained the Middle East by telling his students: “You must stick to your role. It is Iraq’s role to balance Iran, Turkey’s role to be a secular bridge to the West, Syria’s role to be Iran’s Arab ally. You must stick to your roles! Just as you would not expect me to get up on this table and start belly-dancing, for that is not my role!”
I never had this professor, unfortunately, but the story was well known because it sets out the long prevalent received wisdom on the latter 20th century Middle East: these were cohesive nation states in the realist tradition who performed the function, the role, expected of them. They did so to meet the expectations of the West and/or the Soviet Union, but more fundamentally these undemocratic regimes did it to preserve themselves in power.
Fast forward to 2003 and beyond. What was the expected regional role of the new Shia-dominated Iraq? The US had its expectation, but the Iranians had another, a critical difference from the old days when everyone agreed that a professor was a professor and not a belly dancer. Saddam’s plans for Kuwait, or really the U.S. view of Lebanon’s civil war didn’t rise to the level of mirror version expectations seen for post-Saddam Iraq.
The Arab Spring has further complicated the picture. Syria, as a whole solid billard ball in the regional game had its role, as did Iraq. But both countries have been split open by unrest, and different subnational groups want what they want. Iraqi Shias want to support Syrian Sunnis as fellow majorities long oppressed by Baathist sectarian minorities. Nevermind that Iraq was the counterweight to Iran and Syria is for the moment still Iran’s Arab Levantine proxy. That was Saddam’s reality, the reality that gave rise to Bin Laden, and Saddam and Bin Laden are dead.
The West’s established expectations for this region may in most cases be just as dead. The U.S. and Ayman a-Zawahiri are now both supporting the Syrian opposition, in word if not fully in deed. We may have to start expecting belly-dancing professors. Stranger things have happened.