Turkish politics has been rocked by the arrest of 10 retired Turkish naval admirals for openly criticizing President Tayyip Erdogan’s “Istanbul Canal” project.
The detainees are among 104 retired admirals who signed a joint letter warning the Turkish government that the canal project could violate international agreements on the Bosphorus Strait.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the officials’ statement “disrespectful” and said the letter “smelled of rebellion.”
Although the debate over the plan has only exposed local political divisions, it could also raise questions about the Dardanelles and Bosphorus waterway laws, potentially affecting the United States and Russia.
The Bosphorus Strait is the only sea route through Istanbul that connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara. A large number of ships use this waterway.
In Turkey, President Tayyip Erdogan’s plan is being called an alternative to the Bosphorus Strait.
In this regard, Tayyip Erdogan has said that this new canal project will reduce the burden on the Bosphorus and will generate billions of dollars annually.
However, Istanbul Mayor Akram Imamoglu said last year that it was a “killer plan” aimed at “earning unearned income” in exchange for environmental damage.
What is the Istanbul Canal project?
President Erdogan first announced the project in April 2011 and hailed it as a “crazy project” with a “big budget” and claimed that it could not be compared to Panama or the Suez Canal. That is, it is a better and bigger project than these two.
He said the waterway would be 25 meters deep and would carry about 160 ships a day.
The new canal will be located west of the Bosphorus Strait and will flow from north to south of Istanbul and 45 km long.
The canal’s official website states that the canal was built because of the Bosphorus’s maritime traffic. The large number of ships carrying the “dangerous” materials they carry to Istanbul City may be safe in the future.
According to the website, a hundred years ago, the number of boats passing through the Bosphorus was 3,000 or 4,000 a year, increasing to about 45,000 to 50,000.
Montreux Convention: What is the 85-year agreement on waterways in Turkey?
The arrested retired admirals have warned that the canal project could violate the Montreux Convention. Under the agreement, Turkey was given control of the Bosphorus within its borders, and there were limits on commercial shipping and naval operations.
He wrote in his letter that any steps in this regard that could lead to a dispute over the agreement should be avoided and that doing so would not be in Turkey’s interest.
The Treaty of Waterways in Turkey is called the Montreux Treaty of 1936. Under the international agreement, cargo ships can pass through Turkish waterways, giving Turkey sovereignty over Istanbul, the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmara, and the Bosphorus.
It also imposes sanctions on warships in countries whose shores are not on the shores of the Black Sea. These are called “non-republican” states, including the United States.
These restrictions include the total weight of ships in these states (maximum 45,000 tons) and their length in the Black Sea (21 days).
Aircraft carriers of the Black Sea riparian and non-riparian states are not allowed to pass through these passages. Only submarines belonging to the riparian states can pass through here.
Any republic in the Black Sea has to notify Turkish authorities eight days before its military ships. In comparison, a non-republic has to do so 15 days before the passage, according to the Turkish Foreign Ministry.
Why is Istanbul Canal Project under debate now?
The proposed Istanbul Canal project aims to create an artificial waterway connecting the Black Sea and the Marmara, which has raised speculation about the Montreux Convention’s future.
The Istanbul Canal project will charge for merchant ships’ passage, apparently in violation of the Montreux Convention’s free passage for merchant ships.
On the other hand, the speaker of parliament, Mustafa Santop, made headlines in March after saying that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could “technically” separate Turkey from the convention without parliamentary approval.
The controversy took a new turn when 104 retired Turkish Admirals issued a joint statement on April 4 calling on the Montreux Convention on the Istanbul Canal scope and the President’s authority to withdraw from international agreements. Concerns were raised about the debate.
Retired Admirals said the convention was necessary for stability in the Black Sea.
“Montreux is a key document in the security of the Black Sea republics,” the statement said. This is the agreement that makes the Black Sea an ocean of peace. “
He added that “Montreux prevents Turkey from entering any war unintentionally in any way and in any way.”
It also said that it had “helped make it possible for Turkey to maintain its neutrality during World War II.”
How will Russia and the United States be affected?
The US and Russian positions on the Montreux Convention and the Istanbul Canal are not officially clear.
However, Turkish analysts often say that there is a geopolitical power game between Washington and Moscow on this issue.
Variance TV, the website that publishes the Retired Admirals Declaration, has recently published a number of articles stating that the United States wants to end the Montreux Convention to gain access to the Black Sea.
On April 4, TechBuraq learned from the senior journalist Murad Yatkin’s blog that “the Montreux Convention has always troubled the United States because it wants to send more warships against Russia in the Black Sea.”
Mehmet Ali Geller, a columnist for the opposition secularist newspaper Kim Hurriyat, says the demand for abolishing the Montreux Convention aims to halt cooperation between Turkey and Russia.
A statement issued by Russian Ambassador to Ankara Alexei Yarkhov in Sputnik Turkey on April 6 stated that Moscow did not expect the Istanbul Canal to affect the Montreux Convention’s terms.
However, some pro-government voices liken the agreement to “shackles” that hold Turkey back from progress.
Haji Yaqsilki, a columnist for the pro-government Islamic newspaper Yeni Akt, raises the question: “Will we be punished for signing the document 100 years ago, just because some people don’t want a powerful Turkey?”
What effect will the Istanbul Canal have on local politics?
The government was immediately outraged by the retired admirals’ statement, saying it was a “coup.” Opposition members, however, dismissed the debate as “artificial.”
In his first public statement on April 5, Erdogan called the officers’ statement “insulting” and said it smelled of “rebellion.”
He also directly blamed the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), and said that CHP members and their relatives were among the signatories to the declaration.
Erdogan added that the debate over the statement was “enough to prove that Turkey needs a” new and civilian “constitution.
The state-sponsored news agency Anadolu has welcomed the Istanbul Canal, saying it is key to Turkey’s world trade role.
What will happen next?
President Erdogan has said that at present, the government does not intend to withdraw from the Montreux Convention. Still, in the future, if necessary, it can be considered for a better agreement.
He emphasized the need to continue the Istanbul Canal project, saying “it will strengthen Turkey’s sovereignty in the Bosphorus.”
In Turkey, there is strong opposition to the Istanbul Canal, which the CHP heads. Critics are concerned about its high cost and its environmental impact.
Despite all the controversy and debate, it is unclear what challenges the Istanbul Canal and the Montreux Convention may face.
But the issue will remain on Turkey’s local agenda, further fueling political tensions between the government and the opposition.