The shift from Kemalist ideology to Sunni piety as the basis for state identity helped Erdogan establish a new kind of relationship with the majority of Anatolian Turks, including a new wave of entrepreneurs who challenged the perquisites and power of the old Istanbul-based business elite. But that shift had a downside; the Kurds, after a period of hope, now see the new Turkish order as just a continuation of the old. And the Alevis, a large Turkish religious minority (perhaps 25 percent of the population), don’t like what many see as an emerging relationship between the state and a religious tradition that in the past has persecuted them. The Syria issue tends to make things worse; the Turkish Alevis are religiously distinct from the Arab Alawites in Syria, but there are some sympathies there.
Meanwhile the international situation is looking tough. Relations with the neighbors are bad: Iran, Iraq, Russia and Syria are all more hostile to Turkey than they were two years ago. The connections with America and Israel have weakened, even as a newly active Russia, strengthening ties to Israel, Greece and Cyprus, creates new challenges in the Mediterranean. Even the economy has slowed; with revolutions in the region and recession in Europe, Turkey cannot go it alone.
The Sunni-Shiite struggle is not only convulsing politics inside countries around the region and polarizing major players like Saudi Arabia and Iran; it draws external powers in, especially Russia which has come to view the “Sunni surge” with great alarm and suspicion. Turkey wants these problems solved, and it has an important role to play, but Turkey cannot do enough on its own. As was true in the Ottoman days, Turkey needs allies to manage its complicated regional portfolio. And as in the Ottoman days, good allies are hard to find, and they always charge a price.