The Istanbul Canal
President Erdogan’s ‘Crazy Project’
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is well known for his penchant for gigantic construction projects in Istanbul. Be it a new airport, Turkey’s largest mosque or a tunnel that goes under the Bosporus — he has built it all within a short time. But these objects of prestige are nothing compared to his latest construction project: The Istanbul Canal. It will be nothing short of the creation of a second Bosporus — a copy of the strait that meanders through the middle of the 16-million metropolis of Istanbul.
Kanal İstanbul (or Istanbul Canal) is a proposed shipping canal that will join the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara, running parallel to the Bosphorus strait, which already cuts through the centre of Istanbul. The government’s intention behind its construction is to relieve the heavy shipping traffic on the Bosporus and to avoid accidents.
Championed by President Erdoğan and revealed in 2011, Kanal Istanbul, which he called his “crazy project,” is one of Turkey’s most strategic mega projects, meant to stem the rising risk posed by ships carrying dangerous goods via the Bosporus, especially oil tankers.
Kanal Istanbul will serve as an international waterway that will contribute to Turkey’s logistical power and infrastructure by performing an important function in global maritime trade.
The government says it will ease shipping traffic on the Bosporus Strait, one of the world’s busiest maritime passages, and prevent accidents similar to the recent incident on Egypt’s Suez Canal, where a giant container ship became lodged and blocked the channel for almost a week. The blockage threw global supply chains into disarray, threatening costly delays for firms already wrestling with Covid-19 restrictions, and nearly doubled rates for oil product tankers.
Importance for Turkey
About 84% of the cargo carried in the world by volume and about 70% by value is transported by sea. Turkey is surrounded by seas on three sides and is located in the middle of three main continents of Asia, Europe and Africa. With more than 8,300 kilometres (5,157 miles) of coastline, it connects Asia to Europe and Russia to the Middle East. Besides, it is located on the transit route of many energy and trade roads.
The 45-kilometre (27.96-mile) canal, which will be built in Istanbul’s Küçükçekmece-Sazlıdere-Durusu corridor, will boast a capacity of 160 vessels a day and is expected to generate significant economic value by reducing transit periods and costs, in addition to passage fees.
Construction of the canal, which the president referred to as the country’s biggest and most strategic infrastructure project, will soon commence. According to Turkey’s Transport and Infrastructure Minister, Adil Karaismailoğlu, “Kanal Istanbul will serve as an international waterway that will complement Turkey’s logistics power and infrastructure by performing an important function in global maritime trade.”
Located around 20 miles west of the Bosporus, in an area sometimes known as “Istanbul’s lung,” Turkey’s man-made waterway would be crisscrossed by eight new bridges. Like the Bosphorus, it would join the Mediterranean-fed Sea of Marmara with the Black Sea, which in addition to Turkey, borders Russia, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Romania and Georgia. In addition to mitigating the risk of collisions, groundings and oil spills, Turkey’s government says the new canal will create 10,000 jobs in construction, a sector that employs some 2-million people in the country.
On April 04, Turkey detained 10 retired admirals after they openly criticised the Istanbul Canal project. They, along with 94 other retired admirals, signed a letter written to the Turkish government in which they argued that it was “worrying” to open the Montreux treaty – which guarantees the free passage through the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits of civilian vessels in times of both peace and war – up to debate, calling it an agreement that “best protects Turkish interests”. “We are of the opinion that there is a need to avoid any statements and actions that could cause the Montreux Convention, an important treaty in terms of Turkey’s survival, to be brought up for discussion,” the letter said.
The detainees also included Cem Gurdeniz, often described as the father of Turkey’s controversial new maritime doctrine known as “Blue Homeland”. The doctrine has grown in prominence, especially during tensions last year between Greece and Turkey over Ankara’s gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean. It argues Turkey has rights to substantial maritime borders including the water surrounding some Greek islands, much to Athens’ chagrin.
The project has also become a focal point in the battle over Turkey’s leadership, pitting Erdogan against Istanbul’s new mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, the opposition figure who is the most significant challenger to the Turkish president’s 17-year rule. Imamoglu, who has called the canal a “betrayal” of Istanbul, said recently that polls show most people in the city are against it. “We are going to use every legal means at our disposal to stand up for their universal rights,” the mayor said.
On Feb.13, Imamoglu’s office filed a formal legal objection to the canal’s development. Erdogan, meanwhile, says it will go ahead “whether they like it or not.”
What is Montreux?
The 1936 Montreaux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits is but one of many Ataturk’s legacies. Signed in 1936 in the Montreaux Palace in Switzerland, it is arguably the only arms control treaty of the interwar era still extant.
The Montreux Convention regulates the use of the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits – which link the Black Sea to the Mediterranean Sea – for cargo ships from other countries. It also grants Turkey rule over the waterways and peacetime guarantees for access for civilian vessels.
According to the text, the passages of war vessels through the straits are subject to restrictions that vary depending on whether they belong to countries with coasts along the Black Sea or not.
Erdogan said in January the Montreux Convention would only apply to the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits in terms of maritime traffic, not the planned canal. The Turkish authorities say that the proposed Istanbul Canal is not covered by the Montreaux Convention, as it specifically pertains to regulating military traffic through the Straits. To be sure, interested parties are bound to argue the intent of the Convention was to cover the passage of naval warships in and out of the Black Sea, and establish a certain level of collective security there. With that in mind, it should not matter whether foreign warships enter the Black Sea via the Straits or through the new Istanbul Canal. Moreover, even when the Canal is functioning, any warship entering the Black Sea will have to have passed through one of the two straits—the Dardanelles, since the Istanbul Canal, if completed, will bypass only one of the two straits. The Montreaux Convention specifically refers to the “regime of the Straits”, not a regime of the Bosporus.