Written by Thomas ST for SouthFront.org
8th of May, 2021
The recent accident in the Suez Canal was used by the Turkish government in a bid to curb the indignant reaction to the mega-project of Channel of Constantinople (Canal Istanbul).
The project is supposed to connect the Marmara Sea with the Black Sea, bypassing the Bosphorus Straits. Canal Istanbul, backed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, reportedly aims to create an alternative shipping route to protect Istanbul from environmental disasters that could result from accidents during the transportation of dangerous goods.
For the Erdogan administration, the Istanbul Canal is the most cost-effective and major strategic infrastructure project in Turkey. It aims to offer “relief” to maritime traffic between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, as the Bosphorus is the main sea lane for oil, grain and industrial transport between the Eurasian hinterland and the Mediterranean.
Turkey had approved development plans for the new Istanbul Canal, Environment Minister Murat Kurum claimed on March 27. This development comes a year after the tender was held by Turkey for the reconstruction of two historic bridges in Istanbul.
Turkish Transport and Infrastructure Minister Adil Karaismailoglu defended President Erdogan’s plans: “The Istanbul Canal will be the most important component of the Middle Corridor, the trade route that connects Europe and Asia”.
The “Middle Corridor” starts from the Turkish territory and continues through the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, ending in China.
According to the Yeni Şafak newspaper, the “Middle Corridor”, part of the “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) project, will be “the safest and most cost-effective trade route”.
Comparing the Northern Sea Route to the Middle Route, he spoke in favor of the latter, which is more attractive in terms of climate conditions and is about 2 thousand kilometers and 15 days shorter than the sea route.
At the same time, Karaismailoglu noted the large volume of Turkish investments in the development of this project, as well as great commercial and economic opportunities for Turkey and the countries of Central Asia that open up thanks to the Middle Corridor.
“We will create the safest logistics route in the world. Neither our country nor the world economy will be affected by any unrest” he stressed out.
The Kanal Istanbul project was announced by the Turkish president in 2011, after the failure to build an oil pipeline that would connect the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Both projects were based on an estimated increase in oil transport from the Caspian to the Black Sea and therefore from the Black Sea via the Bosphorus. However, estimates, which were predicted by S&P Platts, were not confirmed, due to lower-than-expected production from Kazakhstan’s oil fields.
Thus, Erdogan plans to take hostage all international navigation through the Straits to the Aegean and the Black Sea, imposing transit tolls that he will set or change, according to Turkish interests.
The Canal Istanbul project has been criticized for its environmental impact in the region but also for its cost, especially as the Turkish lira is collapsing and inflation in the country is moving at an uncontrollable pace. The Istanbul Canal’s budget is estimated at $ 9.2 billion.
How Turkey risks to lose control of the Straits because of a “crazy project”
This project raises criticism within Turkey not only for its financial costs and environmental impact, but also for its potential impact on maritime transport. The mayor of Istanbul has called it a “crazy project”.
In the last three years, a discussion has begun in Turkey by Erdogan on the revision of the 1936 Montreux Convention, while the palace in Ankara has approved a development plan for the construction of a 45-kilometer second canal in Istanbul.
This Convention provides for the free passage of all non-military vessels and, as far as the warships of the non-coastal countries of the Black Sea are concerned, determines the manner of entry and the duration of the stay, as well as their tonnage.
According to Erdogan’s vision for the Black Sea Canal, once completed, Istanbul Canal will provide a shorter route for non-coastal vessels to reach the Black Sea, as long as they pay the necessary fees.
With the Istanbul Canal, Erdogan intends to repeal the Montreux Treaty of 1936, which ceded control of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles to Turkey, guaranteed free navigation, and allowed the Dardanelles to be militarized.
This last point was raised by the 103 admirals in their letter, pointing out that the abolition of the Treaty of Montreux repeal the militarization of the Dardanelles and the islands and therefore the whole region must return to a demilitarization state, which according to the 103 is a danger to the national security of Turkey.
In the same letter, the 103 state that the abolition of the Montreux Treaty will bring other Treaties, a lengthy legal and political process of Constitutional review that must be done by a new government with a strong majority.
Shortly after the naval accident in Suez provoked the suggestions that the operation of the sea canals will be controlled by an international mechanism, in Turkey there was an intervention by retired diplomats who called on Tayyip Erdogan not to violate the Montreux Treaty in force.
The maritime accident in Suez and the closure of the canal urgently restores the issues of operation and management of the maritime canals as it is not a national but an international affair because it directly affects the world economy and the geostrategic pendulum.
In a statement, 126 Turkish honorary ambassadors warned that the Kanal Istanbul project could jeopardize the Montreux Convention and have a negative impact on Turkish interests. (Link) They warn that Istanbul Canal will lead to the loss of absolute Turkish sovereignty over the Marmara Sea.
126 honorary ambassadors and 103 retired Turkish admirals warn Erdogan not to dare to unilaterally cancel the Montreux Treaty, because Turkey risks becoming a big loser.
All that Turkey could apply are different rules on merchant vessels in order to be able to generate revenue for the Turkish state in the event that in the long run (perhaps for centuries) the project is depreciated because of the inclusion of its new channel. Under the Montreux Convention, Istanbul’s revenue is automatically significantly reduced, as the Montreux Convention prevents taxes and charges that may be levied on merchant ships.
In the meantime, Turkey’s revenues from the passage of merchant ships through the Straits are expected to decrease significantly in the coming years as, according to US planning, the railway and road axis Plovdiv – Alexandroupolis is promoted at a rapid pace, which aims to reduce costs of commercial transportation from the countries of the former Soviet Commonwealth.
Why NATO wants the Bosphorus and Suez Straits open and under its control?
Russia is expected to resist any attempt to repeal the Montreux Convention. Moscow has already stated that if the Turkish President insists on the construction of the new Canal, its operation should be governed by the application of the provisions of the Montreux Convention in all passages. (Link)
The thorny issue of the passage of warships concerns not only Russia but also NATO, which is also expected to react.
If not brought under the control of International Organizations, the sea canals, as waterways, threaten to disrupt the geostrategic chessboard and storm the world economy. Maritime transport in our time determines international trade. The smooth operation of the largest channels in the world is crucial for the global economy. Each time one of the canals closes, the global balance is automatically disturbed.
The recent accident on the Suez Canal and its shutdown for several days caused a short circuit in the international money market, increased the price of oil and overturned predetermined moves on the international arena.
This risk is maximized when the operation of the waterway is affected and depends entirely on the geopolitical conditions that prevail each time in the wider area.
The smooth crossing of the Suez Canal and the Dardanelles Straits is a dominant issue for NATO, the US & Russia.
The Straits are governed by the Treaty of Montreux or the Treaty on the Status of the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles. The terms of the convention have been a source of controversy for years, mainly over the passage of Soviet warships from the Straits to the Mediterranean Sea.
The dispute continues nowadays with the US and NATO, who seek for free military activity in the Black Sea, mainly because of Ukraine and Georgia.
However, Erdogan now seems to be thinking seriously about overthrowing the Treaties, which do not suit him, such as Montreux and maybe later the Treaty of Lausanne.
Three years ago, in 2018, by presidential decree, Tayyip Erdogan delegated to himself the power to withdraw Turkey from any international treaty or pact – such as the Montreux Convention – without parliamentary approval.
A possible revision or abolition of the Treaty of Montreux directly affects Greece raising the issue of demilitarization of islands of Lemnos and Samothrace.
The issue of the Treaties caused a vivid discussion on the meeting of the National Security Council of Turkey on March 30th, 2021. With an eye on Greece and its eastern islands, which is now an official Turkish target.
During the discussion, it was pointed out that: “The Treaties concerning Turkey and the Conventions are in force. Turkey applies them in full, but Greece violates them, causing permanent tension. Therefore, the Turkish government, based on international law, can suspend them at any time, unless Greece declares in the forthcoming negotiations in writing that it will respect their implementation.”
Erdogan, however, speaks with certainty of a “suspension at any time” of the Treaties, implying that he can use Article 60 of the 1960 Vienna Convention, according to which “a material breach of a bilateral treaty by one of the parties entitles the other to invoke the breach as a ground for terminating the treaty or suspending its operation in whole or in part.”
It is clear that the tightening of the Turkish stance towards the whole West depends primarily on a change in the Treaties and on the increase in military power on which it counts.
According to the available information, the first Turkish aircraft carrier TCG Anadolu (L-400) is expected to sail in the Mediterranean in coming months. It is a multi-purpose amphibious attack ship equipped with take-off and landing facilities that will allow the use of aircraft such as Ospreys, and helicopters that are in service with NATO-allies, up to the heaviest vehicles. In terms of displacement, the Anadolu aircraft will be the largest vessel in the entire Turkish fleet in terms of draught.
Anadolu is able to take on board up to a battalion with equipment. This vessel will be able to conduct independent combat operations in remote areas, carry out amphibious operations, and support amphibious troops.
Edited by Supratim Barman