The threat of Istanbul Canal - and the race to stop it

Istanbul’s Bosphorus Strait is one of the world’s most crucial trade corridors, witnessing the passage of more than 41,000 vessels carrying nearly 650 million tons of cargo last year.

An 84-year-old treaty, the Montreux Convention, ensures Turkey’s control over the Bosphorus, along with the Dardanelles and the Marmara Sea, which are collectively known as the Turkish Straits and provide sole access to the Black Sea from the Mediterranean and Aegean. Montreux guarantees in peacetime the free passage of civilian vessels and naval ships belonging to the six Black Sea states, while restricting the flow of ships from other countries.

“The convention was sort of a way of ensuring everyone felt safe and comfortable,” maritime affairs analyst and diplomatic advisor Paul Pryce told Ahval in a podcast, “that no one was going to perpetrate another war for control of the straits that would cost human lives, but also so that there wouldn’t be some unilateral action by Turkey.”

The Istanbul Canal -- a planned 45-kilometre, $25 billion waterway linking the Marmara and Black seas, running parallel to the Bosphorus -- could be the unilateral action that upends the convention, enrages regional states and even sparks conflict. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has described the canal, which he first proposed a decade ago, as an economic and transport safety project beyond the scope of the Montreux Convention.

“Basically, Turkey could apply any rules it wanted,” said Pryce, peering into a future in which the canal has already been built. “It essentially gives Turkey a chokehold on access between the Black Sea and the Aegean Sea.”

Since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, sparking a border conflict with Ukraine, the United States and NATO -- of which Turkey is a member -- have sought to increase their Black Sea presence as a warning to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

They have sought to bring in even greater naval support, but have been limited by Montreux, which stipulates advance warning and a maximum three-week stay in the Black Sea for naval ships of non-littoral states and bars larger vessels like aircraft carriers. Some U.S. officials have even challenged Montreux, arguing that it is too tilted in Turkey’s favour.

“There’s more skin in the game for Turkey than the United States,” said Pryce, pointing out that Turkey sees its control of the Turkish Straits as crucial to its maritime might and that 22 million Turkish citizens live along and rely on the straits. “There’s going to be a pretty significant pushback if you were to try to do anything to alter the legal or strategic situation of the straits.”

Yet here we have Turkey doing precisely that, aiming to build a canal that would throw the Montreux Convention into doubt. For Russia, a key concern is that if the Istanbul Canal were to push aside Montreux, it’s possible Turkey would allow passage through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles, which link external seas to internal Turkish waters, but bar any passage through the Marmara Sea, blocking full transit through the straits.

“If that were to be the case we’d see a very significant challenge when it comes to the flow of global trade through the straits,” said Pryce, who last week wrote about Montreux for the Center for International Maritime Security.

“This would escalate tensions between Turkey and Russia,” he added. “A lot of that hazardous cargo that’s passing through the straits that Turkey has expressed concerns about is Russian oil and natural gas, so that’s particularly concerning when it comes to the potential for an escalating conflict.”

This helps explain why there has been so much opposition. In January, more than 120 retired Turkish diplomats signed a letter warning the government that building the canal would erode Turkey’s security. Ertuğrul Günay, former Justice and Development Party (AKP) parliamentarian and Turkey’s minister of culture and tourism from 2007 to 2013, has warned that Black Sea states would object to the canal.

Pryce believes both NATO and Russia would be unhappy with the project. “They would be extremely upset. I think it would put Turkey in a very awkward position,” he said. “I think there was a fair bit of miscalculation when it came to the canal project.”

He pointed out that Turkey’s main reason for the canal, boosting the safety of transport and locals, is not legitimate because, as Turkish freighter captains have pointed out, the new canal as planned would not be deep enough for the largest and most high-risk cargo vessels. 

“That’s clearly not the underlying intention,” said Pryce. “It’s a matter of gaming real estate prices, ultimately.”

In 2018, the royal family of Qatar, one of Turkey’s closest allies and a key financial supporter, purchased more than 44,000 square metres along the planned canal route. Berat Albayrak, Erdoğan’s son-in-law and Turkey’s Minister of Treasure and Finance, also owns land along the proposed canal. Several Turkish firms close to the AKP are expected to be involved in construction, which would continue this government’s practice of using large construction projects to gain friends and fill coffers.

Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu, who hails from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and is seen as a potential threat to Erdoğan in the next presidential vote, has described the canal as a betrayal of the city, citing environmental concerns. Nearly three-of-four Istanbulites sided with their mayor in a recent poll on the proposed canal, which suggests it could be a crucial issue heading into the 2023 elections.

The first tender for the project was held in March, and Pryce thought Erdoğan and AKP may be pushing to begin canal construction before the next election, scheduled for late 2023.

“The question is whether or not a change in government would happen before shovels are in the ground,” said Pryce. “Once things have been torn up and neighbourhoods displaced, it’s hard to go back on it. I’m not entirely sure what could be done in that situation if you had the canal 10 percent built, 50 percent built when there would be a change in government.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.