Erdoğan risks kicking the hornet’s nest as he threatens the Montreux Convention

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Istanbul Kanal project unquestionably raises issues about the Montreux Convention, which has served as a pillar not only of Turkey’s national security, but of regional stability for 85 years.

Erdoğan has deliberately threatened to meddle with the treaty, and has kicked the hornet’s nest of international indignation as a result. The Turkish president clearly loves international attention - his detention of 10 retired admirals who protested his threatening was another media grab -- but he is likely to get some he will not like this time.

“Erdogan’s words and actions] were likely to spotlight the question of the Istanbul Kanal’s impact on the Montreux Convention, making it probable that Erdoğan will now come under increased international pressure to clarify his intentions,” analyst wrote Aron Lund in a report for the Swedish Defence Research Agency FOI.

Certainly the words are clear enough. "We currently have neither any efforts nor intention to leave the Montreux Convention," Erdoğan told reporters after a meeting of top ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) leaders, Anadolu news agency reported on April 5.

This would seem to settle the matter, except he immediately said just the opposite. 

He added that “his administration would not hesitate in the future to review any agreements to get a better deal for Turkey.”

The report cited Erdogan as saying that the 1936 convention was reached following long negotiations and that control of the straits was handed to Turkey instead of an international commission with “many limitations.”

Erdogan said Turkey would “stick to the deal until it finds the opportunity for a better one. Turkey will also get an alternative under its full sovereignty outside the limitations of the Montreux Convention. This is [part of] our struggle for sovereignty."

The notion of an “alternative” has led to international consternation, as the report notes.

“Turkish officials have stated that the Istanbul Canal could be completed in five or six years. As Turkey takes the first steps toward the canal’s physical construction, the question of its impact on the Montreux Convention remains in dispute. Neither Erdoğan nor other Turkish officials have been willing to discuss the issue in any detail, and the resulting lack of clarity has opened the gate to speculation, in Turkey as well as abroad.

The idea that the Istanbul Canal could meaningfully bypass the Montreux rules seems particularly spurious since, in addition to the Bosphorus, the convention also covers the Sea of Marmara and the Dardanelles,” the report points out.

To dissolve or weaken the Montreux framework risks igniting serious Russia-NATO tension with potentially serious consequences for Turkey. At the very least, it would create a new and unfamiliar situation in the Mediterranean/ Black Sea region, the report says.

Erdoğan’s showboating has already ignited Vladimir Putin.

"In regards to Turkey’s plans for construction of the Istanbul Canal, Russia emphasised the importance of preservation of the 1936 Montreux Convention in order to ensure the regional stability and safety of the regional Black Sea straits regime," an announcement from Russian news agency Tass on April 9 explains.

Nor is the United States pleased by the Erdoğan’s threats.

“The United States has long supported the “principle of freedom of transit and navigation” referred to in Article 1 of the Convention, and effectively abides by the rules in it,” notes defence analyst Paul Pryce.