Erdoğan’s ambitious project: Kanal Istanbul and the dream of a new Bosphorus

Erdoğan’s ambitious project: Kanal Istanbul and the dream of a new Bosphorus

'Today we have opened a new page in Turkey’s "development". With these words, on June 26, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan launched the works for the creation of Kanal Istanbul, an artificial waterway that will connect the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara. The project, which has been in the pipeline for over ten years, will serve to relieve congestion for the passage of ships on the Bosphorus, the strait that divides Europe from Asia and links the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, consequently connecting it to the Mediterranean. Despite many criticisms, the Turkish government approved a development plan for the construction of the huge canal on the edge of Istanbul, which would turn half of Turkey’s largest city into an island. The canal, which is expected to be completed by 2028, will have a length of 45 km, 15 km more than the Bosphorus. The project, which is estimated to cost 75 billion Turkish liras (almost $ 9.2 billion), also includes the construction of a new city along its banks, with housing for one million residents and various infrastructures that will be connected to the new Istanbul airport. It would likewise see the construction of ten new bridges, a container terminal, a seaport, and dozens of highways, malls, congress and convention centers, cultural facilities, tourism facilities, business districts, and entertainment centers. The purpose of Kanal Istanbul is to help to reduce traffic on the Bosphorus, which is crossed by more than 40,000 ships each year, a number the Turkish government expects to increase in the coming decades. Furthermore, the Turkish government claims to have the right to collect a transit toll from ships crossing the canal - a tax that can not be applied in the Bosphorus due to the Montreux Convention. Turkey's Transport Minister estimates the revenues of the transit toll in the first phase to amount to around $ 1 billion a year, adding that it could grow to $ 5 billion.

The intention to develop the Kanal Istanbul project is the latest expression of the accelerated development processes underway in Turkey. Since Erdoğan’s first term as Prime Minister in 2003, new infrastructures have emerged all over the country, especially in Istanbul. During this building mania, national funds have been used for numerous construction projects, including the Çamlıca Mosque and the Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge. During his election speech in 2011, the then Prime Minister Erdoğan firstly proposed the project of Kanal Istanbul, defining it as ‘[...] an energy project, [...] transportation project, [...] development project, [...] urbanization project,’ and ‘an environment protection project’. The Turkish president argues that the canal will turn Turkey into a global actor by increasing international exports and imports and strengthening its influence over the Black Sea region, the Balkans, Northern Africa, and the Middle East.

The canal was first envisioned in the 16th century by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent as an alternative sea route used for the transportation of timber, and during the last 400 years of the Ottoman Empire there have been attempts by seven different sultans to build the canal. Bülent Ecevit, who has served as Turkey’s Prime Minister five times, also presented the idea of a canal linking the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea, arguing that such an infrastructure was needed in order to reduce the traffic in the Bosphorus, which was highly overcrowded. However, none of these plans has ever materialized. It follows that, if the canal becomes a reality, it could turn into an occasion for Erdoğan to boost his own image by claiming to have succeeded in what many previous sultans and prime ministers could just dream, which would, in turn, reinforce his national support. The issue of the transit toll will be a way to prove that Erdoğan is even more successful than the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who returned the Bosphorus to Turkish sovereignty through the Montreux Convention, but on the condition that the ships could cross without paying a transit toll. Conversely, if the Kanal Istanbul is built, it will be under Turkish sovereignty and will generate revenue for Turkey. 

A worrying scenario
The project of Kanal Istanbul has openly undergone sharp criticism by many sectors of the Turkish society, exacerbating the already existing tensions between President Erdoğan and the mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem İmamoğlu, exponent of the main opposition force People's Republican Party, who has defined Kanal Istanbul ‘a murderous project’ that would lead to catastrophic consequences, while the president's spokesman harshly rejected what he called ‘the interference of the city administration’ in a national project. One of the major concerns is reflected by the devastating environmental impact that the creation of Kanal Istanbul could trigger. Indeed, studies indicate the severe environmental risks that would arise from the connection of the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, in particular for the latter. The excavation works will involve cutting down 200,000 trees, which will aggravate the problem of air pollution in Istanbul, along with the destruction of 136 million square meters of agricultural land. There are also concerns regarding the supply of drinking water. Indeed, about 40 percent of Istanbul's drinking water comes from Thrace, the European part of Turkey. The supply would be disrupted by the project, which would destroy 33 million cubic meters of freshwater lakes and reservoirs along its route. Therefore, the canal is likely to have a considerable impact on agriculture and the fishing industry, causing huge damages to the population living in Thrace. The threats to biodiversity are also considerable. On the one hand, the earth dug from the canal would be used as landfill along the Black Sea coast, destroying the coastal habitats of many species, while on the other hand the annual introduction of almost 2 cubic kilometers of additional saltwater from the Black Sea and the canal corridor into the Sea of Marmara might destroy the marine environment.

The project further poses a threat to Istanbul’s unique urban landscape, as the construction of the canal would compromise the structural integrity of historic buildings throughout the city. The city center features a myriad of architectural treasures of immeasurable historical importance, including Hagia Sophia, the Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque, and the Hippodrome, manifesting the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman past of Istanbul. The construction of the Istanbul Kanal could put the heritage of this area at risk of earthquakes and floods, a likelihood well documented by seismologists. Moreover, the project would compromise the careful urban planning of the city by slowing the flow of traffic to and from this area. Being home to the main tourist destinations, the city center is subject to a constant flow of both tourists and residents working in the tourism industry. The canal would cut off main roads leading to the center and direct traffic flow to the bridges across the canal, potentially creating extreme congestion in the proposed entrances.

Among the risks posed by the construction of Kanal Istanbul, there are also several with a geopolitical nature. Indeed, one of the main accusations that have been addressed against the project is related to the threat that it poses to Turkey’s sovereignty in the Black Sea, which is protected by the Montreux Convention, a multilateral international agreement ruling over the navigation of the Turkish straits signed on July 20, 1936 by Turkey, the Soviet Union, Romania, Greece, France and the United Kingdom. According to the Convention, the passages of war vessels through the Strait of the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus are subject to restrictions that vary depending on whether they belong to countries with coasts along the Black Sea or not. Indeed, it limits the number, tonnage and type of ships that the countries of the Black Sea can transfer to the Mediterranean through the straits, placing even more stringent restrictions on warships of non-coastal countries, which are entitled to transit through the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles only if their total tonnage not exceeding 15 thousand tons, and could remain in the Black Sea for a maximum of 21 days. By controlling the Straits, Turkey became an essential player for the strategic balance of the Black Sea, the Mediterranean in a broad sense and, finally, the Middle East, the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf.

The arrest of 104 retired Turkish naval officers following their open letter addressing the risks of neglecting the Montreux Convention had led the issue of Kanal Istanbul to the center of international debates. The communiqué against Kanal Istanbul reveals the deep fractures that cross the Turkish apparatuses and the fierce competition to tactically orient the growing Anatolian power. Among the signatories of the letter addressed to Erdoğan is Cem Gürdeniz, creator of the Blue Homeland doctrine, who has been detained by the authorities in the counter-coup triggered in the hours that followed the publication of the statement. The main concern of the admirals, who traditionally represent the kemalist and nationalist elites, lies in the fact that the eventual realization of the project would have a direct impact on the geopolitical constitution of the Republic of Turkey, which is founded on two pillars - the Treaty of Lausanne and the Montreux Convention. The latter allowed the Turks to reassert their sovereignty over the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles, following the occupation of Constantinople by British, French, Italian and Greek forces in 1918. The construction of Kanal Istanbul would not automatically invalidate the 85-year old maritime treaty, given the presence of the Dardanelles. However, the reform of the convention would be an inevitable - and perhaps intended - consequence of the entry into force of the new canal. It is precisely this concern that triggered the admirals' communiqué, which was read by Erdoğan officials as a coup attempt - a nightmare for a president with an increasingly fragile leadership and who experienced the failed coup of 2016. This is a fear that cyclically crops up in Turkey due to its more recent history, as the military has traditionally played a prominent role in politics, to the point of having organized coups when they considered the Republican Constitution to be under threat.

Despite all the criticism, Erdoğan has made no secret of the fact that he intends to complete the project of Kanal Istanbul, insisting that it would offer a safer option for transit than the Bosphorus, and that it would allow shippers to avoid the delays from which Bosphorus traffic occasionally suffers. However, while on the one hand it is true that navigation through the planned canal will not entail the same tricky 90-degree turns that the Bosphorus requires, on the other hand accidents in the straits are nevertheless extremely rare, and since the installation of the Radar Vessel Transit system (VTS) back in 2003 there have been no major incidents involving tankers and no oil spills at all. Anyway, the recent accident that occurred in the Suez Canal proves that even in linear and well-managed canals casualties could happen. Moreover, even though delays are not uncommon on the Bosphorus, which can be closed due to bad weather or the passage of unusually large vessels which require traffic to be restricted, Kanal Istanbul, if built, would likely face similar limitations. Thus, considering the few advantages that Kanal Istanbul would offer, it remains unclear whether shippers would opt to pay the transit fee to cross it while the passage through the Bosphorus is free.

Towards a diplomatic crisis?
From a geopolitical point of view, in recent years the Black Sea region has witnessed a resurgence of tensions and new rivalries which have led to a deterioration of regional stability. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the open conflict in the Donbas allowed Russia to strengthen its military presence in a region where its sphere of influence has been diminishing since the dissolution of the USSR. The enlargement of NATO to Romania and Bulgaria in 2004 and the subsequent recognition in 2008 of the Euro-Atlantic aspirations of Georgia and Ukraine have further contributed to the decrease in Moscow's influence. The tensions that arose in the aftermath of the November 2018 incident between the Russian and Ukrainian navies in the Azov Sea, connected to the Black Sea by the Kerch Strait, underline the importance of the Black Sea space for Russia. In fact, the Black Sea is a privileged area in which Russia is able to exercise and project its ambitions of becoming a maritime power, especially since its intervention in Syria in September 2015. 

Russia risks being the first victim of the Bosphorus alternative, and Moscow repeatedly communicates an outspoken stance against the exclusion of Kanal Istanbul from the scope of the Convention. Its concerns are specifically related to the militarization of the Black Sea, the increase in costs for oil exports and the environmental dangers that could impact the Russian coasts of the basin. In particular, one of the main consequences would be linked to the limitation of the revenues from Russian oil exports, because the requirement of a transit toll will increase the cost of Russian exports, with negative consequences for the Russian economy. Therefore, encouraging ships to use the canal to collect the toll could make it a matter of contention between Turkey and Russia.

However, Moscow’s concerns do not only lie over trade issues, and are linked to the origins of the convention. In Montreux, the pinnacle of Turkish-Soviet post-war cooperation was reached. The convention was in fact the product of a joint diplomatic initiative by Kemal's Turkey and Stalin's Soviet Union. To the Russians, Montreux responded to the vital need to prevent the entry of thalassocracies into the Black Sea, from where it is possible to hit the productive, cultural and demographic heart of Russia, and it was with this guarantee that the Soviets allowed the Turks to regain possession of the straits. Since its entry into force, the Montreux Convention diligently implemented by Turkey has prevented the Black Sea from becoming an area of military confrontation even in the darkest days of the Cold War. As a matter of facts, the convention precluded U.S. attempts to deploy submarines, aircraft carriers,  and large ships in the Black Sea to keep the Soviet Union under pressure. More recently, in 2008, amidst Russia’s military intervention against Georgia in the South Ossetia conflict, Turkey denied permission to heavy-tonnage U.S. military vessels to enter the Black Sea, citing the convention as a source of law.

It is therefore unsurprising that Montreux is at the heart of the Kremlin's concerns. The convention still represents a guarantee for Russia, especially since its maritime strategy has taken on clearly defensive tones. Recent developments in the Black Sea basin add to the significance of the Montreux controversy. Despite its rapprochement with Moscow, Ankara has openly rejected Crimea’s annexation while strengthening its military cooperation with Ukraine. Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2 drones, which were pivotal for Azerbaijan’s success in the Nagorno-Karabakh war last year, are vital to the Turkish-Ukrainian partnership in the military sector. Following the Turkish air force commander’s visit to Kyiv in November 2020, TB2 drones began flying over Donbas and near Crimea, alarming Russia. Such Turkish involvement in an eventual escalation makes the Montreux controversy even more critical. 

Nowadays, the Black Sea could become the epicenter of the U.S.-Russia confrontation. On the Russian side, many argue that the construction of Kanal Istanbul could lead to a situation where foreign powers, and especially the United States, would be able to introduce more and larger naval vessels into the Black Sea for longer periods - or perhaps without any limitation at all. The growth of the U.S. presence in the Black Sea, threatened in recent times in response to the escalation of tensions in the Donbas, is just a glimpse of what Russia can expect with a change of arrangements between the Straits. Russia views Western military activities in the Black Sea as an attempt to threaten Russian hegemony at the maritime level. Specifically, the presence of U.S. aircraft and ships regularly approaching Russian borders and occasionally simulating missile attacks is interpreted as a permanent and unacceptable threat to Russian sovereignty. The mutual approach of Russia to China, which materialized in 2014 with the so-called global strategic partnership, was born precisely with the aim of building a Eurasian bloc as opposed to the Atlantic one. After the U.S. decision to send warships in the Black Sea in April, Russia raised concerns over the increase of Black Sea naval activities of foreign powers, and President Vladimir Putin called Erdoğan to oppose scrapping the Montreux Convention. Indeed, the United States and NATO have increased their presence in the Black Sea early this year, when U.S. President Joe Biden's administration took power, reaching a level similar to the one of 2014-2015 at the time of Crimea annexation.

Turkey has a wide range of geopolitical tools at its disposal, far more than its reduced size would suggest. The Istanbul Kanal will certainly be among the most relevant. It is still unclear whether it will be used as a blackmail weapon against Moscow, or simply as an instrument of further independence for Ankara. With the construction of Kanal Istanbul, if the United States is able to obtain a relaxation of the rules imposed by the Montreux Convention, the relations between the forces of the Black Sea could change considerably, resulting in a substantial alteration of the balance of power in the region due to the American military projection capability. However, it is likely that any revisions to the Montreux Convention Ankara may propose will only benefit its regional aspirations, and that its Transatlantic allies would not be the beneficiaries of any potential change. For Turkey there are no advantages in a larger presence in the Black Sea of ships from the U.S., the United Kingdom or France, as they would only encumber Turkey’s aspirations to be the dominant player in the region. The same applies to the Eastern Mediterranean. Indeed, in the event of an exacerbation of the conflict in the Black Sea, Turkey will probably strengthen its cooperation with Moscow but will not completely sever the transatlantic link with Washington and the EU in order to obtain the best price from both sides and also not to completely deprive oneself of the NATO shield vis-à-vis Russia. Conversely, if Turkey does revise the Montreux Convention, it will solely be in its own favor, and the consequences for Moscow will probably be less dramatic than those expected by many. 



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