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Timothy Garton Ash

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 realm. The day after I left, Syrian gunfire killed several people inside Turkey. Their shots crossed a frontier that didn't exist until the demise of the Ottoman Empire.

On the face of it, these two events seem unrelated: the first a historical curiosity, the second among the most urgent challenges of the day. As many as 9,000 people have reportedly been killed in Syria. Thousands more have been wounded and, according to some estimates, as many as a million are internally or externally displaced. French and British-led intervention in Libya was triggered by Moammar Gadhafi's credible threat to kill civilians in Benghazi en masse. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has actually done it in Homs.

If the scale of killing were the sole trigger for intervention, we should have done it weeks ago. Compared with these horrors, who gives a fig for the passing of some old sultana? Yet, the two events 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 of 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 foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, has, to be sure, formally rejected the charge that he's a "neo-Ottoman"; but he's also said: "I am not a minister of a nation-state only." A former university professor, he talks often about the Ottoman legacy. After one such performance, delivered to 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 modernized, slimmed-down, republican version – the last princess ended her life officially as Mrs. Osmanoglu (that is, Mrs. Ottoman).

Turkey has major business and trading interests in Syria, while the checkerboard ethnic legacy of the partitioned Ottoman realms means that restless Kurds live on both sides of the Turkish-Syrian frontier. Not to mention the pressure of refugees, which has led to increasing talk of the Turkish army's imposing a buffer zone or humanitarian corridor inside the Syrian frontier. Some even suggest Turkey could cite a violation of Article 1 of the 1998 Adana agreement between the two countries, that "Syria … will not permit any activity that emanates from its territory aimed at jeopardizing the security and stability of Turkey." (This originally referred to support for Kurdish groups such as the Kurdistan Workers' Party.)

But there's a larger story. When I say, in relation to humanitarian intervention, "we" should have done it long ago, readers' default assumption will be that "we" refers to the Western powers, preferably acting with some United Nations authority. And it's true that if the West's leading military powers do engage with armed force – as they did in two other corners of the former Ottoman Empire, Bosnia and Kosovo – it would have a transformative effect. But none of them, least of all Washington, show any intention of doing so here.

U.S. President Barack Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy have elections to win. British Prime Minister David Cameron is too busy drumming up trade in the Far East. They'll express outrage and try to ratchet up economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure through the UN, but don't expect any Libya- or Kosovo-type intervention any time soon.

In these circumstances, other states will determine the fate of the Syrian people. In the near future, Turkey will be more important than Britain, Iran than Germany, Saudi Arabia than France, Russia than America. In Syria, all these regional powers pursue their own national interests, defined not just in economic and military terms but also in cultural and ideological ones. So there's a tussle between Shia, post-revolutionary Iran and Sunni, reactionary Saudi Arabia, post-imperial Russia and neo-Ottoman Turkey, not to mention China – a vital swing vote among the permanent members of the UN Security Council.

If some weary pasha had gone to sleep in 1912 and woken up only today, he might feel quite at home. Ah yes, he'd say, here are the great powers still pursuing their interests in the Great Game. Many of them, in fact, are partially modernized versions of the old powers: Turkey under Sultan Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Russia yoked to Czar Vladimir Putin, China in the last months of Emperor Hu Jintao.

The balance of forces around Syria would be different if the EU's shared sovereignty model had reached out to embrace Turkey, as it has been promising to do for nearly 50 years. But it has not. Europe is inaudible on Syria. And hence the fate of that country's brave resisters and suffering civilians depends on the old-fashioned regional competition of diverse sovereign powers.

Timothy Garton Ash is a professor of European studies at Oxford University.