Istanbul’s geographical positioning, rich cultural heritage, religious symbolism and location as a major trading routes’ crossroad led Napoleon Bonaparte to once declare that “if the Earth were a single state, Constantinople would be its capital.” Sandwiched between Europe and Asia, Istanbul has long enjoyed a strategic positioning, an important historical role that it would – most probably – carry in the future.
Istanbul has long been the southeastern gate of Europe and the only maritime passage for Black Sea states to the wider Mediterranean. It’s not the geographical aspect solely that makes Istanbul a very important city, but many large projects carried out in recent years, which will definitely enhance the status and significance of the city.
Since the arrival of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to power in 2002, authorities carried out many bold projects to reinforce the value of Istanbul as a mega city with strategic importance. The third bridge connecting Istanbul’s Asian and European sides across the Bosporus was open in 2016. Similarly, Istanbul Airport was opened to the public in 2018 and became the largest airport in the world. Additionally, Turkey is establishing today an even larger megaproject by opening a water canal to connect the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, and thus to the Aegean and Mediterranean seas.
Turkish decision-making personnel have responded enthusiastically to the Istanbul Canal, which many strategists believe will be a game changer with strategic implications in both the Black and the Mediterranean Seas.
Taking into account its enormous cost, establishing a canal almost parallel to the Bosporus raises many questions regarding the real intentions of the project as well as its implications. The following will present the project, its strategic importance and the related interests of major international actors, without losing sight of the geopolitical importance of Istanbul, Turkey’s supreme interests and Ankara’s use of geography in politics to achieve its vision of strengthening its regional role.
Istanbul Canal: “A Necessity not only a Dream”
At the height of his popularity, then Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced in a rally in 2011 that Turkey will establish the long-awaited Istanbul Canal. This was a dream come true for many, especially for Turks who consider themselves the flow of a great nation rooted in a long rich history associated with Ottoman might.
Beginning with Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, the Istanbul Canal was proposed many times in history. Back in the mid-16th century, Suleiman’s well-known architect Mimar Sinan devised plans for the project. However, it was abandoned for unknown reasons, according to the Turkish Hurriyet newspaper. Many other Ottoman Sultans tried to revive the project but all failed to do so. As such, many Turkish strategists, geologists and academics advocated for the project during modern times, but few were taken seriously.
Many Turkish opposition politicians saw Erdogan’s pledge to build the Istanbul Canal as a populist election promise that would soon be forgotten. On the contrary, between 2011 and 2018, the Turkish Transport, Maritime Affairs and Communications Ministry carried out studies on the feasibility of the project and unveiled, in 2018, the final route of the Istanbul Canal. Relevant authorities started to cooperate with Turkish and foreign private sectors to implement the project during the same year.
The Canal, the largest ever construction project undertaken by the governing AKP, will be established on the European side of Istanbul and link the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara. It will be 50 kilometers long, around 150 meters wide and 25 meters deep. The project also includes the construction of new seaports, bridges, businesses, touristic districts and artificial lakes, etc.
The project is expected to cost between $12.7 and $25 billion according to different estimates provided by Turkish government officials. Although it does not seem realistic, Istanbul Canal is estimated to be operational in 2023 on the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Turkish Republic.
The reasoning behind the establishment of the Canal varies from ambitions to restore the might of the Turkish role in the region to the limits of normal technical matters. Erdogan always emphasizes the geopolitical importance of the project by stating that “if Turkey is going to be a global actor, the Canal Istanbul Project is a necessity, rather than only a dream.” On the other hand, technical matters are always mentioned by officials who state that the project will reduce traffic in the Bosporus, carry on an urbanization process for parts of Istanbul and reduce the risk of ship accidents. Additionally, “the Canal will bring great prestige [to Turkey] and a significant revenue” according to Dr. Mustafa Ilicali, a professor of industrial engineering at Istanbul Commerce University.
Another line of reasoning for establishing the Istanbul Canal is related to the Montreux Convention that applies to the Bosporus maritime straits and Turkey’s efforts to bypass it under its revisionist ideology.
Bypassing the Montreux Convention
The passage through the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits linking the Black Sea to the Mediterranean is subject to the international treaty known as the Montreux Convention. Entering into effect in 1936, the Convention regulates the passage in the two Turkish straits in terms of number, tonnage and weaponry.
The convention undermines Turkey’s absolute sovereignty over the straits and differentiates between the rights of Black Sea states and other states. The Convention “enshrined free passage through the straits of Bosporus and the Dardanelles for trade ships only. Meanwhile, it significantly limits the class and displacement of military ships for non-Black Sea nations. Black Sea nations may move military ships of any class through the straits during peace time by notifying the Turkish authorities beforehand,” according to TASS news agency.
In practical terms, the Montreux Convention stipulates the following: all non-military ships may pass through the two Turkish straits in times of peace while military ships are subject to restrictions. No more than nine non-Black Sea state warships, with a total aggregate tonnage of no more than 30,000 tons may pass at any one time, and they are permitted to stay in the Black Sea for no longer than 21 days. Non-Black Sea state warships passing through the straits must be less than 15,000 tons. This places limitations on non-Black Sea states and entities such as the US, the European powers and NATO operations in the Black Sea. Only Black Sea states (Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Russia, and Georgia) ships of any tonnage may pass by the straits after notifying the Turkish authorities.
The Convention terms served Turkish and Soviet interests by giving Turkey military control over the straits and assuring Soviet and later Russian dominance over the Black Sea. The terms were a reflection of the international situation and the equilibrium in power between the rising Soviet ascendancy, the decline of European states after World War I and the American almost indifference to international affairs during the mid-1930s. Ultimately, the Montreux Convention served to restrict the ability of western international powers to freely navigate in the Black Sea, either to undermine Soviet and Russian dominance there or to pose a military threat to the Soviet and later Russian mainland.
For Turkey, the international situation reflected in the Montreux Convention has ended. Russia can no longer solely dominate the Black Sea, the United States and NATO are much more concerned in the Black Sea and Balkans affairs than before and Turkish leadership no longer sees Turkey as a follower of the West, or as lost between East and West, but rather as a power that aspires to play a role greater than just as a marginal regional power. Turkey seeks to achieve this by increasing its strategic and geopolitical value to the international powers through the use of geography, which includes the necessity of establishing the Istanbul Canal.
Likewise, Turkey aims to bypass the Montreux Convention by completely controlling the passage of the new canal in terms of Turkish interests rather than common international interests regulated by international treaties and conventions. Erdogan has affirmed many times that “the Canal Istanbul, which has nothing to do with the Montreux Convention, will bring Turkey greater comfort and peace […] we will establish our own independence, our own sovereignty in full measure.”
The Strategic Importance of Istanbul Canal
The Montreux Convention greatly contributed to reducing the risk of conflicts in the Black Sea region as well as to protecting the region from militarization and/or military escalation. Under the terms of the Convention, and due to its geographical positioning, Turkey has been mandated by the great powers to implement a system that serves their interests and not its own.
For the AKP’s revisionist leadership, which aims to establish Turkey as a major actor on the international scene and in the heart of main geopolitical games, the interests of their own country comes first. The head of the Gheorghe Bratianu European Association of Geopolitical and Strategic Studies Constantin Corneanu puts it as such: “The Istanbul Canal will become an instrument in the Erdogan regime’s arsenal in his constant efforts to include Turkey in regional geopolitical games.”
Establishing the Istanbul Canal will empower Turkey’s position in any negotiation regarding the Black Sea status and give Ankara the ability to conduct direct negotiations with major international actors, thus acknowledging its regional role. Additionally, the Istanbul Canal might result in a militarization race in the region while creating strategic difficulties for Russia. The latter outcomes arise from the anticipated authorization of US and NATO’s warships to roam in the Black Sea, which would force major international powers to take into account Turkey’s geopolitical and security interests.
While Turkish voices advocate for the Canal for economic reasons (developing Istanbul and charging high fees for passage), Turkey’s “aims are realist geopolitics […] Ankara raises its geopolitical leverage vis-à-vis the international community by having an exclusive authority over this geo-strategically pivotal strait”, according to NATO Defense Foundation.
By establishing the Canal, “Turkey will have the capacity to strategically set regulations on maritime traffic at discretion and hence increase its own geopolitical influence in the area. The opening of a new waterway, subjected to Turkey’s sovereignty and disengaged from the Montreux Convention, will give Ankara the chance to bypass the limits imposed to its strategic control of the straits by the Convention,” according to IARI’s analyst Alessandra Casareggio.
Although Turkey has no interest in the outbreak of any conflict in the Black Sea or even in the militarization of the region, any security crisis or a new war in Ukraine or any of the Balkan countries will increase Turkey’s value and role in future conflicts. Due to its control over the old and new straits, and its ability to determine who would be granted access to the Black Sea, Turkey’s strategic value increases in the event of any serious conflict that poses a threat to the security of the region.
In order to increase Turkey’s strategic value, the Istanbul Canal could be considered the cornerstone of a strategic project that Turkish military and strategist circles call “Mavi Vatan” (the blue homeland). This project aspires to strengthen Turkey’s maritime power, dominance and sovereignty over its bordering seas. In addition to the Istanbul Canal, the Turkish naval military power was strengthened immensely during recent years. The process of research, exploration and extraction of natural resources from the sea is taking new leaps, and mutual agreements of maritime boundary treaties are taking place between Turkey, Libya and others. The aforementioned Turkish endeavors aim to enhance Turkey’s strategic position, value and capabilities so that it may play greater roles on the regional and international arena.
Internal Challenges and Major Powers’ Position towards Istanbul Canal
In addition to many financial difficulties associated with the establishment of the Istanbul Canal, internal political challenges, as well as the positions of major countries regarding the project, are so far the two most important difficulties facing the implementation of the project.
Many harsh critics are heard inside Turkey, including voices coming from the Turkish opposition parties and high military personnel. Political parties usually criticize the project through the lense of its impact on the environment, earthquake-related risks, threats to local heritage, etc. Bearing in mind the political differences between the weak Turkish opposition parties and the ruling AKP (which has ruled for 20 years), it is safe to argue that opposition voices do not significantly contribute to amending any of the ruling party projects or even opinions.
New internal players entered the heated discussion related to the Istanbul Canal. In April, more than 100 retired Turkish admirals criticized Turkey’s project of building a waterway parallel to the Bosporus in an open letter addressed to the Turkish nation. The letter expressed concern over Ankara’s intention to bypass the Montreux Convention, suggesting that “the army should stick to the Turkish republic’s founding principles and the […] route drawn by its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk […] Otherwise, the Republic of Turkey could face the risk and threat of […] the biggest of dangers to its existence.”
Authorities and loyalists to the AKP criticized the open letter as a political coup attempt while police detained 10 retired navy admirals out of the 104. Moreover, many columnists and political analysts saw the admirals’ move as an action hinted at by the US or Russia, especially since the latter is the most negatively affected by the establishment of the Istanbul Canal.
Between 2018 and 2021, Russia raised on many occasions its concerns over the building of a new canal under Turkish full sovereignty, an understandable position since the canal would undermine Russia’s strategic interests. According to Jamestown analyst Paul Goble, by not legally abiding to the terms of the Montreux Convention “Moscow fears that NATO or some other anti-Russian combination of states could introduce any amount of warships at any time into the Black Sea—which would both encourage other littoral states to look away from Moscow and ostensibly threaten Russian national security. Russian officials and commentators have long expressed those concerns.”
Among many others, two high-caliber Russian strategists, Aleksey Baliyev and Andrey Areshev, reflected an alarming concern over the establishment of the Istanbul Canal by stating that it could play an important geopolitical role in the demise of Russian strategic influence.
On the opposite side, establishing the Istanbul Canal is good news for the US since, for the right price, it would be able to send its warships into the Black Sea if war broke out with Russia. But Washington would undoubtedly have to make major concessions to Turkey, like abandoning its campaign against Turkey’s acquisition of S-400 anti-aircraft systems from Moscow. The US has not expressed any public rejection of the project yet, but at the same time, it doesn’t seem very enthusiastic about it either. The United States is not eager to intervene with the balance of power in a region of clear and sustainable Russian influence.
For the European Union (EU), the establishment of the Istanbul Canal is a true strategic dilemma. On the one hand, the EU can strategically profit from any decline of influence of its Russian nemesis, which would strengthen the ability of European major powers to influence the Black Sea and Balkans regions. On the other hand, Turkey’s exclusive control of the Canal will translate into an increase of Ankara’s influence and role, which does not benefit Brussels in the long run since Turkey will be more independent in its actions and free from taking into account the interests of the European powers.
The Turkish president and the ruling AKP revived the old Ottoman megaproject to establish a water canal north of Istanbul to link the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Despite the economic and development significance of the Canal, its fundamental importance appears in its strategic implications.
By building the Istanbul Canal, Turkey seeks to bypass the Montreux Convention and to run the canal according to its own strategic interests. The Turkish megaproject provides a vivid example of how to take advantage of geography in the strategic and geopolitical fields.
Ankara strives to be a key player in major geopolitical games in the region by presenting itself as a valuable partner to all major powers: in other words, upgrading its role from a member of alliances that do not take into account its own interests to a primary determinant of its own affairs.
The establishment of the Istanbul Canal will increase Turkey’s geopolitical standing in the region, make other powers more flexible in dealing with it and recognize its role in the region as a major player. The end game of the Istanbul Canal is to benefit Turkey’s own strategic interests and to use the Canal as a tool to bargain with major international actors.
Despite internal opposition, Russian rejection and lack of Western enthusiasm concerning the project, Turkey is striving to implement it, thus taking its supreme national and strategic interests over any other considerations.