During his election campaign in 2011, the current leader of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, expressed his intention to bring to life several grandiose political and infrastructure initiatives.
The most ambitious of these projects entails the construction of a new waterway, to the west of the Bosporus, that will connect the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara. Officially, the initiative is called Istanbul Canal (which will serve as an alternative to the Bosporus), but unofficially, it has been dubbed the crazy project. In fact, some time the past, Recep Erdoğan gave the waterway this name because of its enormous price tag and the complex topography of its bed.
According to various estimates, it will cost 15 to 20 billion US dollars to build the canal. Considering the current global climate, Turkey’s involvement in the military conflict in Syria and the pressure of US sanctions, Ankara is, in fact, experiencing difficulties finding the necessary funding for the project, since China, Turkey’s main economic partner (also involved in the New Silk Road initiative), is unlikely to come to its aid. Hence, it is expected that a substantial portion of the money will come from the government budget on condition that the Turkish army plays a significant role in the implementation of the project. In order to attract Turkish investors, there is an active information campaign that claims the construction of the canal will result in creation of more jobs and improvement of residential and commercial infrastructure along this waterway, and will act as a driver of growth for the Turkish economy.
This partisan project inspired President Erdoğan back in 1990s when he was the mayor of Istanbul. Still, the concept of building such a canal is not new and originates from the Era of Suleyman the Magnificent (1520-1568). Later on, sultans of the Ottoman Empire revisited the idea on more than one occasion from 16th to 19th centuries, but, at the time, there were always more important tasks to be dealt with. In 1994, the leader of the Republican People’s Party and subsequently the Democratic Left Party, Bülent Ecevit (who served as the Prime Minister of Turkey four times), also remembered the Istanbul Canal initiative. And after some time, it became one of Turkey’s mega projects meant to transform Istanbul, which also include the third bridge across the Bosporus; a new airport; a large mosque in the Büyükçekmece district in the city’s Asian side, and the plan to renovate Taksim Square.
It has already been announced that the canal will be completed and first used by 2023, i.e. the centenary of the Republic of Turkey. But because of the all too real problems plaguing the Turkish economy, a more sensible delivery date would be somewhere in year 2025. The waterway is expected to be 45 to 50 kilometers long, 25 meters deep and, on average, 150 meters wide. Its size will allow the passage of large ocean liners, tankers and even submarines through it (in comparison, the Suez Canal is approximately 20 meters deep and up to 350 meters wide at present). It is estimated that 150-160 ships will traverse the canal per day, and up to 85,000 vessels a year, respectively.
The key benefit of the new initiative for Turkey is that ships will be charged for the passage through the canal. In contrast, transit via the Dardanelles and Bosporus straits is free, in accordance with current international agreements.
The Istanbul Canal initiative may turn out to be not only a challenge for designers and engineers working on the project, but also for many countries whose ships sail through the Bosporus including, first and foremost, Russia, the United States and NATO nations. Once the new canal is built, Turkey could attempt to impose new conditions on the use of its waterways. Hence, for the moment, any issues associated with the project’s costs and its economic viability are not at the forefront.
At present, the Montreux Convention governs transit of vessels through the Bosporus Strait, but, in the future, Turkey plans to control the passage through the Istanbul Canal single-handedly. The 1936 Montreux Convention ensured relatively hassle-free movement of vessels through the Bosporus and in the Black Sea. All civilian ships have every right to freely sail through the Dardanelles and Bosporus waterways both in peaceful times and during war. On the other hand, naval vessels of various nations are grouped into two categories: the Black Sea countries (which, at present, include Russia, Turkey, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine and Georgia) and the non-Black Sea ones. Naval ships of all the Black Sea nations can freely pass through any of the straits as long as they notify Turkey about this in advance. Whether military ships from non-Black Sea countries are allowed to use the waterways or not depends on their class and tonnage. Smaller classes of naval ships (belonging to non-Black Sea nations) with a combined tonnage that does not exceed 30,000 tons in the Black Sea are the only ones permitted to pass through the straits and remain in the region for no more than 21 days per year.
As a consequence, the statement made by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in 2012 takes on an added significance. He said that transit of vessels through the Bosporus would be reduced to a minimum, which would lead to locals using it for water-sports and to the creation of a public transport system in the city that would return life in Istanbul to what it had once been. Hence, after the completion of the Istanbul Canal, there is a possibility that Ankara could attempt to impose new conditions on transit of vessels through its waterways and to initiate a review of or even revoke the Montreux Convention on the grounds that it is outdated. With the old agreement disappearing into oblivion, a new pact will be signed on Turkey’s terms that will take into account the interests of its allies. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has already shown the extent of his ability to maneuvers in an agile manner and to defend Turkey’s national interests. Since Turkey is a NATO member, it is safe to assume that this military alliance will aim to include provisions beneficial to its objectives in the new convention at the expense of interests of Russia and its Black Sea Fleet.
Even if Washington has not yet made any official statements about its stance on the construction of the Istanbul Canal, it is well known that one of the most important aims of the United States is to consolidate its position in the Black Sea. And the 1936 Montreux Convention stands in its way. This agreement has ensured security in the Black Sea for many years. The pact also allowed Turkey and the Soviet Union to effectively limit access to the region by non-Black Sea nations of the West. Many NATO members were truly shut out, as even during the Cold War era, the United States was unable to convince Turkey to circumvent the convention.
After the collapse of the USSR, Washington made several desperate attempts to gain a foothold in the Black Sea by accepting former signatories of the Warsaw Pact into the western camp and by continuing its efforts to surround Russia with NATO military bases. And with the construction of the Istanbul Canal, the United States will undoubtedly engage in new efforts to consolidate its position in the Black Sea region in the hopes that this waterway will enable it to circumvent the Montreux Convention, which limits U.S. naval ships’ access to the Dardanelles and Bosporus straits and does not allow them to remain in the region for more than 21 days.
Washington has long looked for an opportunity to get round the Montreux Convention by various means, including by claiming that the Black Sea was part of “international waters”. However, it was unable to do so. After all, Turkey has opposed such moves. In fact, its former Chief of the General Staff, General İlker Başbuğ, once put an end to the aforementioned attempts by saying that the Black Sea was the concern of nations bordering this body of water.
Still, a document prepared at Washington’s initiative, entitled NATO: READY FOR FUTURE – Adapting the Alliance 2018-2019 and signed by Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Jens Stoltenberg, states that NATO naval forces will, in the nearest future, increase their presence in the Black Sea region and the duration of their stay to 120 days a year. In April 2019, NATO deemed the Black Sea to be a zone of competition.
Taking into account Ankara’s changing attitude towards “orders from Washington” and its reconsidered ties with the United States, Russia, the EU and other regional and global players in recent years, we can reasonably assume that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will be compelled to make important decisions regarding numerous internal and external challenges that lie ahead on the path towards fulfilling his dream, i.e. the construction of the Istanbul Canal. We hope that these will be prudent decisions, which will not only be based on Washington’s one-sided demands but also on Turkey’s recognition of its own true role and place in the Black Sea region and the entire global political landscape.
Valery Kulikov, political analyst, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.