Kanal Istanbul is the name of the project which the Erdogan Government has been postponing since 2011 due to financial problems and environmental concerns. The Turkish Government simply explains that the project aims opening an artificial seaway between the Black Sea and the Marmara Sea in order to mitigate the oil tanker traffic through the Bosphorus as well as constructing new earthquake-resistant residential areas along the channel.
The project has once more divided the already divided Turkish nation.
CHP, (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi in Turkish) the major opposition Party of Turkey claims such a construction would violate international treaties, damage the environment and will increase the risk of massive earthquakes.
The Bosporus is currently one of the most crowded waterways in the world. Thousands of oil tankers make up part of the 85,102 civilian and military vessels that transited through the Bosporus in 2018.
According to the Turkish Government the main objective of this project is to reduce potential risks posed by ships carrying dangerous materials, passing through the Bosporus.
The sight is common for the city’s residents: every day about 115 vessels cross the Bosphorus Strait.
It is a fact that accidents happen in this narrow natural waterway that divides the Turkish city’s European and Asian sides and links the Black Sea to the Marmara Sea. In April 2018, a cargo ship failed to stop and crashed into an 18th-century Ottoman the Hekimbaşı Salih Efendi Mansion in Istanbul’s Anadoluhisarı.
During the period from 1953 to 2018, 462 maritime incidents occurred in the Istanbul Strait or in its southern entrance at the Marmara Sea. The majority were collisions.
Turkey counts on Kanal Istanbul to prevent more crashes by offering an alternative crossing point for ships through the city’s European side. But when it comes to the environmental and social costs of what President Erdogan dubbed his “crazy project”, the consensus falls away.
Opponents of the project claim its environmental toll, in the pristine parts of the city, is too heavy to ignore and has not been studied properly.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan states that Kanal İstanbul will cost 10 billion dollars to build but experts estimate that the final bill will be around 20 billion dollars. According to the estimates, the 30-35 percent of the cost of the project will be compensated from Istanbul Municipality, which is now under the control of the CHP, the major opposition party of Turkey.
It is not a secret that The Montreux Convention is a key to the Black Sea’s regional security.
While China and Russia, two land powers, are keen to limit the rights of passage of ships in their territorial waters and by extension do not want to change the status of the Montreux Convention. On the other hand, maritime powers such as the US, the UK and NATO advocate strongly for freedom of navigation.
Abdullatif Sener, a major figure in CHP, opposition Party of Turkey claims that there are two hidden objectives of the project. One is creating business for Erdogan’s close circle in construction business and second changing the status of Montreux Convention in favor American interests. Currently military vessels are limited in number, tonnage and their duration of stay in the Black Sea. However, applying the Montreux Convention to the new canal would mean amending the convention, a difficult legal process with its own ramifications which Sener believes that U.S will find a way to evade the current status quo through the new canal.
Even though Turkish Government made it clear that the new canal will not affect the status of Montreux Convention, the conspiracy theorists seem convinced that the new project will serve the U.S. interests in Black Sea.
But does it make sense?
Turkey’s Black Sea policy has always been at an historical crossroads. Since the 19th century, Turkey has balanced Russian power through active Western military support. Now, however, it is not a secret that Turkey has distanced itself from the Western hemisphere and Erdogan views the West as a threat. There is no indication that this trend will overturn soon. Within these circumstances, Erdogan cannot find a new way to balance a resurgent Russia. The U.S.-led Transatlantic alliance seems that it cannot even prevent such a partnership from happening.
It should be remembered that one of the biggest maritime vessels in the world transited through the Bosphorus in Istanbul in 2018 after completing the first line of a new gas pipeline between Russia and Turkey beneath the Black Sea.
The vessel Pioneering Spirit, the size of several football pitches, passed through the Bosphorus towards the Mediterranean after laying the first section of the hugely ambitious TurkStream project.
TurkStream, a project championed by President Vladimir Putin and Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, aims to pump Russian gas to Turkey and Europe while avoiding Ukraine.
The 1936 Montreux Convention gives Turkey control of the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles, the strait that leads into the Mediterranean; but it also requires Turkey to grant freedom of passage to commercial and naval ships.
NATO ships arrive on port visits and training missions. Vast cargo ships carry multi-coloured containers, and in summer tourist cruisers dock in the city centre. But it’s the Russian ships that have caught international attention as President Vladimir Putin made clear that he was reasserting Moscow’s muscle in Syria and the wider region. The Bosphorus is a vital link between Russia’s Black Sea ports and its naval bases in the coastal towns of Latakia and Tartous. The Bosphorus is the only gate for Russian trade ships to the Mediterranean as well.
Russia actually supports the project. About the free passage rights provided by the Montreux Convention, Russian Ambassador Erkhov -in an interview with Murat Yetkin last week-, said that oil exporters could compare the queue costs of the ships; such a channel would not change the traffic situation much, even if it could relax the traffic through the Bosporus. ‘I see it as a very long-term project, I mean really for the future. But the Montreux Convention has established a legal regime for the Black Sea. This legal regime not only establishes the passage through the Bosporus and the Dardanelles straits but also regulates the total tonnage of the ships of the coastal and non-coastal states. The presence of a new artery does not change the regime. The Montreux Convention sets certain limits to be obeyed during the passage in and out of the Black Sea; a new artery does not change those limits.’
From the geopolitical point of view, it is a fact that Russian influence, political and economic interests rely on Bosporus. Once the Kanal Istanbul come to existence, the influence of Russia in the region and the speed of the Russian trade ships will be doubled.