Europe has left Syria to a distinctly Ottoman fate

The day I arrived in Istanbul, they buried the last Ottoman. Her Imperial Highness Fatma Neslisah Sultan had been born in a royal palace overlooking the Bosphorus when her grandfather still notionally reigned over the remnants of a vast, intercontinental realm. The day after I left, gunfire from Syrian president Bashar al-Assad's troops killed several people inside Turkey. Their shots crossed a frontier that did not exist until the demise of the Ottoman empire.

On the face of it, these two events seem quite unrelated: the first, a mere historical curiosity, the second, among the most urgent political and humanitarian challenges of the day. Upwards of 9,000 people have now reportedly been killed in Syria. Tens of thousands more have been wounded and, according to some estimates, up to a million men, women and children are internally or externally displaced. French and British-led intervention in Libya was triggered by Muammar Gaddafi's credible threat to kill civilians in Benghazi en masse. Assad has actually done it in Homs.

At the time of writing, he has ignored the deadline agreed with former UN general secretary Kofi Annan for the withdrawal of Syrian forces. The chances of an effective ceasefire seem vanishingly small. If the scale of mass killing of civilians were the sole trigger for humanitarian intervention, we should have done it weeks ago.

Yet these horrors and the passing of that last scion of empire are more closely related than you might think. For Turkey, it makes a world of difference that the territory now called Syria was, until the first world war, as much an integral part of the Ottoman realm as Ireland was of the British. This historical awareness is especially important for Turkey's moderate Islamist government, whose deputy prime minister attended the funeral ceremony for the last granddaughter of the last sultan. Its doctrine of "strategic depth" sees Turkey as a regional power, straddling Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia, like … guess who.

Its voluble and hyper-energetic foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, has, to be sure, formally rejected the charge that he is a "neo-Ottoman"; but he has also said "I am not a minister of a nation state only". A former university professor, he talks often, eloquently, and at length about the Ottoman legacy. After one such performance, delivered to assembled foreign ministers of the European Union, one of them joked that the EU was being invited to join the Ottoman empire. But this is, of course, a modernised, slimmed-down, republican version, rather as the last princess ended her life officially called plain Mrs Osmanoglu – that is, roughly, Mrs Ottoman. (Think Mrs Windsor, formerly of Windsor Castle, in the British republic that I shall not live to see.)

Timothy Garton Ash is a historian, political writer and Guardian columnist.

The above article was published in guardian.co.uk on April 11th, 2012 (21:00 BST).

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