Turkey and the Suez ‘heart attack’

Turkey continues to threaten to depart from the 1936 Montreux Convention that governs free shipping through the Bosporus strait.

The accident in the Suez Canal served as the excuse for the speaker of Turkey’s Grand National Assembly, Mustafa Şentop, to imply as much last week, even if he had to go back on his statement due to the tense situation between Ankara and Washington.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also proclaims this departure when he wants to utilize it geopolitically and when talking about his announced pharaonic intention of constructing a second canal in the Bosporus – one unregulated by international conventions. Could Turkey close the strait and block the passage of both merchant and military ships between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, depending on what serves its interests?

According to the Montreux Convention, merchant ships enjoy freedom of passage and navigation in the strait, irrespective of their flag and cargo.

The convention allows Turkey to militarise the strait and permits the Black Sea countries freedom of passage for military ships provided they give a week’s notice, and substantially restricts the passage of military vessels that are not from the Black Sea states (notification of crossing, tonnage restrictions, armament restrictions, aircraft carriers cannot pass, and others).

All of this in a time of peace, which, however, is threatened by Erdoğan’s controversial views on the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean, as well as the atmosphere in the Black Sea, reminiscent of the Cold War, where Ukraine is the epicentre of looming dark clouds and, according to analysts, will likely remain a source of global tension.

The Suez “heart attack” brought up questions on safe passage into and out of the Mediterranean, as much for the merchant fleets as the navies that move between the Red Sea, Gibraltar and the Bosporus, with the latter crossing attracting the attention of military and commercial organisations around the globe, given the volatile geopolitical situation in the wider region.

Turkey, if it deems necessary, does not need to bar the gate to stop traffic in the Bosporus and the Dardanelles. All it has to do is conjure up an accident by scuppering two ships in the straits, without being accused of violating the Montreux Convention. That is why the West is feverishly readying the “continental straits” between Alexandroupoli and Burgas as an alternative, while NATO equips the fleets of Romania and Bulgaria.

(A version of this article was originally published by the Kathimerini and reproduced by permission.)