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Kanal İstanbul and the Looming Shadow of World War III: A New Phase in US-Turkey Geopolitics

M. Ahmet Karabay

Tayyip Erdoğan announced the Kanal İstanbul project as a “Crazy Project” to the public before the elections of June 12, 2011. The details of the project, which was announced without serious preliminary work, have begun to emerge over time.

More than 13 years have passed since the announcement of the Kanal İstanbul project. The project, which even AK Party’s Istanbul candidate Murat Kurum hesitates to support, came up from a completely different center with Sweden’s NATO membership being approved by Turkey.

In a time when war preparations are in full swing worldwide, US Deputy Secretary of Defense Celeste Wallander requested the relaxation of the Montreux Convention. By asking for a change in the implementation of Article 19 of the Turkish Straits Agreement, Wallander said, “We are willing to work with Turkey on the phased withdrawal of the Montreux Convention and the reopening of the straits.”

What Wallander really meant to say was, “Interpret the straits in a way that opens them to warships.” Wallander made these remarks after a regular meeting of the contact group set up to coordinate military aid to Kiev.

In recent months, the UK has transferred a mine-sweeping vessel to Ukraine, and Turkey did not allow the ship to pass through the straits based on the Montreux Convention. As known, Article 19 of Montreux prohibits any warships of states at war in the region from using the straits.

The Turkish public had known Wallander until now for her support to Turkey regarding the F-16s. We remembered the same Wallander again, now saying, “Let’s relax Montreux, let our warships enter and exit the Black Sea!”


In April 2021, there were discussions that Montreux could be annulled with President Erdoğan’s signature, leading 104 retired admirals to issue a joint statement requesting that the Montreux Convention not be touched. In the retired admirals’ statement, it was said, “Montreux is not only a treaty regulating passage through the Turkish Straits, but also a major diplomatic victory that returned to Turkey full sovereign rights over Istanbul, the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmara, and the Straits, complementing the Treaty of Lausanne.”

As known, the retired admirals faced prosecution because they said, “We believe that any rhetoric and action that could bring the Montreux Convention into question/discussion should be avoided.” If Turkey did not have a past suffering from military coup processes, the points raised by the retired admirals would be seen as very important, just as “a point of attention by a professional group.” The statement, “Montreux prevents Turkey from inadvertently entering a war on the side of a belligerent in a war,” was like an alarm bell for the developments to come.

Pandora’s box seems to have been opened with Turkey’s approval of Sweden’s NATO membership. In fact, this vote in the Parliament shows that the established order in Turkey stands with the West. Sweden’s membership was approved with a “Yes” vote from 287 MPs from AK Party, MHP, CHP, and DEVA.

The US sold the latest generation F-35 fighter jets to all willing allies, including our neighbor Greece. However, they canceled Turkey’s order, despite being a partner in the project and paying $1.2 billion, citing Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 missiles. Moreover, they announced they would not refund the money.

Since then, Turkey has been trying to get at least the necessary parts for maintenance and repair of its approximately 70 F-16s and to buy 40 more F-16s, even though it knows that the planes are outdated.

After the completion of the stages of Sweden’s NATO membership process in Turkey, US President Biden will send the official sales letter to Congress. If there is no objection from Congress within 15 days, the sale will be cleared.


While these developments were taking place, British Chief of the Defence Staff General Patrick Sanders said that in the coming years, the British need to be ready to fight Russia. Sanders emphasized that the war to be prepared for will be on the scale of the great wars of the 20th century.

General Sanders, seeing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a sign of what will happen in the future, said that the lessons learned from previous wars should be remembered before it’s too late.

Britain named the preparation. Known for spending little on defense, Germany announced it would urgently spend 100 billion Euros on arms. Germany is preparing to reintroduce conscription, which it had abolished, while Sweden has already reintroduced it.

Western countries find resources for war. They have no problem with that. The problem is creating a human resource for war. Germany has announced that non-German citizens will also be recruited into the army for this purpose. Western countries, trying to procure human resources from outside, do not want the war to take place on their own land. Therefore, they ensure that the war takes place on the territory of other countries for some reason.

It seems that Turkey will face some impositions regarding the passage of foreign warships through its straits in the coming period. Congress could request an addition to Biden’s letter regarding the sale of F-16s to Turkey, such as “Facilitate the passage of warships of NATO countries.”

Or they might move to ensure the immediate realization of the Kanal İstanbul, envisioned as an alternative route to Montreux. To those who say, “The straits are not just the Istanbul Strait; there’s also the Dardanelles Strait,” a small note. The planned length of Kanal İstanbul is 45 kilometers. Creating a passage from the Saros Gulf to the Sea of Marmara to bypass the Dardanelles Strait is much easier. The required canal length here is only about 6-7 kilometers.

It’s not easy to predict how the process will develop. One fact is that the Western bloc is heading full speed towards a direct war with Russia. It’s not necessary for Turkey to take a side in the potential East-West clash that might occur.

The war mentioned by British Chief of Staff General Sanders will undoubtedly be World War III. Nuclear weapons have not been used since 1945. Those who will deploy their weapons on the battlefield will not want to use nuclear weapons in their own countries. In this case, the possibility of Turkey’s territory becoming a country where the war takes place and nuclear weapons are detonated does not seem far-fetched.

I don’t know who will win such a war. But there’s no doubt that the losing country will be Turkey.

Until this week, I believed that Kanal İstanbul was a rent-seeking project. Now, I’ve started to believe that this project was prepared by NATO and the US and presented as a bribe to Tayyip Erdoğan in the form of real estate rent.

Erdoğan, who has proven his maturity in serving the interests of the US and the UK, will surely have been handed a guide on how this will be done.

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