Foreign Policy

Erdogan Is Digging a Gap He Can’t Escape

By Jonathan Gorvett is a journalist specializing in European and Middle Eastern affairs.

Kanal Istanbul, a plan to dig a nearly 30-mile channel between the Black and Marmara seas, would turn half of Turkey’s largest city into an island. The project would also see the development of a new city of a million people along Turkey’s Thracian banks, and the construction of a container terminal and dozens of new bridges, highways, marinas, malls, and entertainment centers.

The effort would be epic in scale—a 2018 document from the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure reportedly estimated that it would cost around $20 billion—and in level of controversy.

Advocates argue that the canal will provide a straight and easy route for tankers and container ships sailing between the two seas. That will help them avoid the narrow and twisting Bosphorus strait that runs through the heart of Istanbul, which would help avoid collisions and groundings that could also threaten lives in the crowded city.

Yet the canal will also be passing through one of Istanbul’s last remaining green areas and a key reservoir for the city’s water. Environmentalists have long been in uproar at the scheme, but the protests got louder late last month when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government final gave Kanal Istanbul the green light.

With opinion polls showing a majority in the city against the scheme, which is also opposed by Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, these protests could become a major challenge to Erdogan. After all, back in 2013, it was a peaceful protest over plans to develop one of the city’s few remaining parks—Gezi—that led to weeks of demonstrations and the most serious challenge to AKP rule since the party took office in 2002.

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Many economists and urban planners see the canal as a waste of precious resources. So does Istanbul’s opposition-controlled local government and its mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu.

“This project is not even one of betrayal, but of murder,” he told a workshop on the canal in December 2019. “When finished, it will be the end of Istanbul.”

According to an Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality workshop in January 2020, construction of the canal would involve the cutting down of 200,000 trees, the destruction of 136 million square meters of agricultural land, and would lose the city some 33 million cubic meters of water from the destruction of freshwater lakes and reservoirs along its route.

The earth dug from the canal would also be used as landfill along the Black Sea coast, destroying the coastal habitats of many species, while the introduction of perhaps 2 cubic kilometers of additional saltwater and organic material from the Black Sea and the canal corridor into the Marmara Sea every year might completely destroy that marine environment.

It is no wonder, then, that so many in the city are opposed. But in an unexpected twist, opposition voices like Imamoglu have been joined by 104 retired Turkish naval officers, with some former admirals among them. Their concern is not impending eco-catastrophe, nor a potential waste of resources at a time of major economic woes and global pandemic. Instead, they fear what the canal might mean for an 85-year-old treaty signed hundreds of miles away by the shores of Lake Geneva in August 1936.

That agreement, the Treaty of Montreux, establishes the rules over what ships, belonging to whom and under what conditions, may pass between the Black Sea and the Aegean. The treaty “holds a significant place in Turkey’s survival,” the ex-navy officers wrote in an April 3 open letter. Indeed, they pointed out, Montreux was put together to prevent outside powers using the straits to trigger conflict—and thereby entangle Turkey in war.

But Kanal Istanbul has triggered a debate over the country’s continued support for the treaty. That debate began back in January, when Erdogan announced that the canal would be “totally outside Montreux,” meaning that only Turkey would decide which ships could pass. And in March, the AKP speaker of the Turkish parliament, Mustafa Sentop, suggested on a pro-government TV channel that Turkey also had the right to withdrawal from the treaty if it wanted to.

The next month, Erdogan further muddied the waters by saying that, while Turkey had no plans to exit the treaty right now, “If a need arises in the future, we won’t hesitate to review any convention to make our country have a better one.”

For the retired naval officers—10 of the admirals were subsequently detained by police for their open letter—Erdogan’s suggestion raised the potential for the lid to be lifted on some particularly toxic issues, 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 up, you never know what might come out.”

“What is the Montreux Treaty about? It’s about Black Sea security,” said Onur Isci, an assistant professor of international relations at Ankara’s Bilkent University, over the phone from the Turkish capital.

The treaty was put together by diplomats from nine countries just ahead of World War II. Their main concern was that under the provisions of the law governing the Turkish straits existing at the time—the 1923 Lausanne Treaty—Turkey had no control over who used them. At the time, those straits would have been understood as the Bosphorus and a further channel, the Dardanelles, which separates the Marmara from the Aegean.

Turkey’s lack of control over these waterways opened up the possibility of fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, or Soviet Russia running their warships through and bouncing Turkey into conflict, as Germany had done at the start of World War I. “Turkish diplomats will never forget what happened in 1914,” Ogutcu said. And so, Turkey, France, and the United Kingdom put together Montreux to prevent it from ever happening again.

“Montreux isn’t a bad treaty at all,” Isci said. “In fact, it was a major accomplishment for Turkey.” The agreement makes a distinction between states that have shorelines 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 either the U.S. or Russia,” Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, the director of the German Marshall Fund’s Ankara office, told me this month. Meanwhile, for civilian vessels of all nations, however, passage remains free during peacetime.

If the proposed canal were to be “outside Montreux,” as Erdogan suggested, it would also be free of all these rules. That would mean it could impose fees for use and ultimately decide who could use it.

Although Montreux never considered a canal like Kanal Istanbul, “Turkey cannot just change the convention,” Ogutcu said. “There are other signatories, and if you opened it all up again, they would bring along their own amendments.”

That might well lead to an undermining of the careful balance the convention struck, all those decades ago. “Ultimately,” Isci said, “I don’t think anyone will want to jeopardize that.” Erdogan would do well to consider the balance carefully, particularly given recent events in the Black Sea region.

Last week, reports emerged that two U.S. warships were to be ordered into the Black Sea amid growing Russian-Ukrainian tensions. Yet thanks to Montreux, the ships—whose voyage was quickly canceled—had to apply for Turkey’s permission first. Under the accord, the United States and other non-littoral nations would also be limited to the total tonnage of ships they could ever place there. Strategic planners in Moscow and Washington must therefore both be praising—and cursing—its provisions as regional war clouds seemingly gather, once again.

Erdogan may want more unilateral power for Turkey to set the rules. But for his country, keeping the lid on this Pandora’s box may well be the wisest move—and the best protection for the sovereignty of which Erdogan often speaks.

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