Timothy Garton Ash: Turkey’s Neo-Ottoman Game Plan

Roundup: Historians' Take

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

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?..

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