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[ANALYSIS] Will Montreux be applied to warships transiting the Istanbul Canal?

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Fatih Yurtsever*

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar reaffirmed Ankara’s loyalty to the 1936 Montreux Convention, one of the founding treaties of today’s Turkish Republic, which limits the access of noncoastal states’ forces to the Black Sea. “We have always maintained that the Montreux regime is beneficial to all parties,” Akar said in a Jan. 31 video message to top army officers, adding, “It is unrealistic to abandon the convention under the current circumstances.” Akar’s remarks also indicate a shift from previous statements by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan opening the Montreux Convention up to discussion for winning support for the Canal Istanbul project — a plan to build a canal linking the Black Sea to the Aegean Sea. Erdoğan claimed last year that the canal would be “fully under Turkey’s jurisdiction,” while the Montreux Convention puts forward class and tonnage limitations for warships belonging to noncoastal states.

With the Ukraine crisis escalating, Turkey has assured Russia that the tonnage restrictions of the Montreux Convention apply to warships. So if Erdoğan’s “crazy” – as he called it — Istanbul Canal project becomes operational, will warships passing through the canal be subject to Montreux restrictions?

The Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits regulates the legal status of the Turkish Straits and the Black Sea. The Turkish Straits include the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmara and the Bosporus, 164 nautical miles. The convention puts forward class and tonnage limitations for warships that navigate through the straits in times of peace and calls for notification before passage. The Montreux Convention strikes a balance between the sides’ interests and grants Turkey broad sovereignty over the straits. The Soviets demanded during the Montreux conference that third countries be excluded from the straits unless they had Black Sea coasts.

On the other hand the United Kingdom argued for general free passage. The current regime allows unrestricted passage for merchant ships, restricts warships and grants exclusive rights to littoral states.

The fundamental principles of the Montreux Convention for military vessels during peacetime are as follows:

  • Aircraft carriers, whether belonging to coastal states or not, can in no way pass through the straits.
  • Only submarines belonging to coastal states can pass through the straits to rejoin their base in the Black Sea for their maiden deployment after construction, purchase, or repair in dockyards outside the Black Sea.
  • The maximum aggregate tonnage of all foreign naval forces that may be in the course of transit through the straits is limited to 15,000 tons. The naval forces should not comprise more than nine warships.
  • The maximum aggregate tonnage that noncoastal states can have in the Black Sea is 45,000 tons. In this regard, the maximum aggregate tonnage of vessels of war that one noncoastal state can have in the Black Sea is 30,000 tons.
  • Naval surface ships belonging to noncoastal states cannot stay more than 21 days in the Black Sea.
  • Turkey is notified of passage through the Turkish Straits through diplomatic channels prior to the intended passage. The notification time is eight days for warships belonging to coastal states and 15 days for noncoastal states.

The Bosporus, the Sea of Marmara and the Dardanelles are considered a single navigation route in the relevant international conventions due to their general connection between the Black and Aegean seas.

It is clear from the preface and objective of the Montreux Convention that the convention concerns passage through the Turkish Straits and maintains the maritime security of the Black Sea states. Although the convention is primarily concerned with transit, it functions similarly to a regional security and cooperation agreement. Creating an artificial channel as an alternative to the Bosporus would not undermine the Montreux Convention. Ships transiting the Dardanelles and the Sea of Marmara would continue to be subject to the Montreux Convention regardless of whether they pass through the Istanbul Canal or the Bosporus.

For any noncoastal state wishing to maintain a sufficient level of naval force in the Black Sea without restrictions on class, tonnage or length of stay, and to enjoy the rights and freedoms of the high seas in the Black Sea, the Montreux Convention remains an obstacle. Although any of the states parties to the convention has had the option to terminate the convention since Nov. 9, 1956, none has yet initiated such a procedure. In addition each of the states parties may propose an amendment to one or more provisions of the convention every five years, beginning with the entry into force of the convention. This process has not yet been initiated, either.

The Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits, maintaining the security of the Turkish Straits and the Black Sea as a whole, is a fundamental document of stability. At a time when the security environment in the Black Sea region is becoming even more fragile due to the escalating Ukraine crisis, Turkey should refrain from any statements or actions that could put the Montreux Convention at issue. Turkey should also clarify that the Istanbul Canal will remain closed to foreign warships and that the convention will address the matter of warship passage.

Fatih Yurtsever is a former naval officer in the Turkish Armed Forces. He is using a pseudonym out of security concerns.

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