By Jonathan Gorvett is a journalist specializing in European and Middle Eastern affairs.
April 28, 2021, 1:03 p.m.
The Istanbul Canal, a plan to dig a nearly 30 miles long canal between the Black Sea and the Marmara Sea, would turn half of Turkey’s largest city into an island. The project would also include the development of a new city of one million people along the Thracian shores of Turkey, as well as the construction of a container terminal and dozens of new bridges, highways, marinas, shopping malls and entertainment centers.
The effort would be epic – a 2018 Department of Transportation and Infrastructure document estimated it would cost around $ 20 billion – and controversial.
Proponents argue that the canal will provide a straight and easy route for tankers and container ships to sail between the two seas. This will help them avoid the narrow and winding Bosphorus Strait that runs through the heart of Istanbul and avoid collisions and groundings that could also threaten life in the crowded city.
The canal will also run through one of the last remaining green spaces in Istanbul and an important reservoir for the city’s water. Environmentalists have long been in turmoil over the program, but protests grew louder late last month when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government final gave the go-ahead to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Canal Istanbul.
In view of opinion polls showing a majority in the city against the program, which the Istanbul City Council is also against, these protests could become a major challenge for Erdogan. After all, in 2013 it was a peaceful protest against plans to develop one of the city’s few remaining parks – Gezi – that led to weeks of demonstrations and the biggest challenge to AKP rule since the party’s inauguration in 2002.
Many economists and city planners view the canal as a waste of valuable resources. This also applies to the opposition-controlled Istanbul local government and its mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu.
“This project is not even about treason, but murder,” he said in a workshop on the channel in December 2019. “When it’s done, it will be the end of Istanbul.”
According to a workshop held by Istanbul City Council in January 2020, the construction of the canal would mean the cutting of 200,000 trees, the destruction of 136 million square meters of arable land and the loss of 33 million cubic meters of water due to the destruction of freshwater lakes and reservoirs along its route.
The earth dug from the channel would also be used as a landfill along the Black Sea coast, thereby destroying the coastal habitats of many species, while possibly introducing 2 cubic kilometers of additional salt water and organic material from the Black Sea and the Channel Corridor into the sea each year that the Sea of Marmara could Completely destroy the marine environment.
So it’s no wonder that so many in town are against it. But in an unexpected twist, 104 retired Turkish naval officers, including some former admirals, have joined opposition voices like Imamoglu. Their concern is neither an impending environmental disaster nor a potential waste of resources in times of major economic troubles and global pandemics. Instead, they fear what the canal might mean for an 85-year-old treaty signed hundreds of kilometers away on the shores of Lake Geneva in August 1936.
This agreement, the Treaty of Montreux, lays down the rules as to which ships, who belong to whom and under what conditions, are allowed to sail between the Black Sea and the Aegean Sea. The treaty “occupies an important place in the survival of Turkey,” wrote the former naval officers in an open letter dated April 3. They pointed out that Montreux was put together to prevent external powers from using the straits to spark conflict – and thereby embroil Turkey in a war.
But Istanbul Canal has sparked a debate about the country’s continued support for the treaty. That debate started back in January when Erdogan announced that the canal would be “completely outside of Montreux,” meaning that only Turkey would decide which ships could pass through. And in March, the AKP spokesman for the Turkish parliament, Mustafa Sentop, suggested on a pro-government television station that Turkey also had the right to withdraw from the treaty if it wanted to.
Over the next month, Erdogan further clouded the water by saying while Turkey currently had no plans to withdraw from the treaty: “If there is a need in the future, we will not hesitate to review a convention to improve our country one . “
For the retired naval officers – 10 of the admirals were later arrested by police for their open letters – Erdogan’s proposal increased the potential for opening the lid on some particularly toxic issues that were locked away by diplomats 85 years ago. “Montreux is a Pandora’s box,” Mehmet Ogutcu, a former Turkish diplomat who now serves as CEO of Global Resources Partnership, told me in April. “If you open it, you never know what might come out.”
“What is the Montreux Treaty about? It’s about security on the Black Sea, ”said Onur Isci, Assistant Professor of International Relations at Bilkent University in Ankara, over the phone from the Turkish capital.
The treaty was drawn up by diplomats from nine countries shortly before World War II. Their main concern was that Turkey had no control over who was using it under the provisions of the Turkish Strait Act in force at the time – the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. At that time, these straits would have been understood as the Bosphorus and another channel, the Dardanelles, which separates the Marmara from the Aegean Sea.
Turkey’s lack of control over these waterways opened up the possibility for fascist Italy, Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia to pass through their warships and plunge Turkey into conflict, as Germany did at the start of World War I. “Turkish diplomats will never forget what happened in 1914,” said Ogutcu. And so, Turkey, France, and the United Kingdom put Montreux together to prevent it from ever happening again.
“Montreux is not a bad contract at all,” said Isci. “In fact, it was a great achievement for Turkey.” The agreement distinguishes between states that have coastlines on the Black Sea and those that do not. The former group is granted greater rights of passage, while warships from all countries are restricted.
“Nowadays, the Montreux Treaty actually protects Turkey from pressure from the US or Russia,” Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, the director of the Ankara office of the German Marshall Fund, told me this month. For civilian ships of all nations, however, the passage remains free in peacetime.
If the proposed canal were “outside Montreux,” as Erdogan suggested, it would also be devoid of all these rules. That would mean charging for usage and ultimately deciding who could use it.
Although Montreux never considered a canal like the Istanbul Canal, “Turkey cannot simply change the convention,” Ogutcu said. “There are other signatories and if you reopened it they would bring their own amendments.”
This could well undermine the careful balance that the Convention achieved all those decades ago. “In the end,” said Isci, “I don’t think anyone wants to jeopardize that.” Erdogan should consider the balance carefully, especially in light of recent events in the Black Sea region.
Last week it was reported that two US warships were about to be ordered into the Black Sea amid mounting Russian-Ukrainian tensions. Thanks to Montreux, the ships whose voyage was quickly canceled first had to apply for permission from Turkey. Under the agreement, the United States and other non-coastal states would also be limited to the total tonnage of ships they could ever place there. Strategic planners in Moscow and Washington must therefore praise – and curse – their provisions when the regional clouds of war seem to be gathering again.
Erdogan may want more unilateral power for Turkey to set the rules. But for his country it may be the smartest move to keep the lid of this Pandora’s box – and the best protection for the sovereignty Erdogan often speaks of.