Erdogan Says Warships May Bypass 1936 Treaty With Planned Canal

(Bloomberg) -- Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said warships will be able to use a planned multibillion-dollar canal bisecting Istanbul, possibly undercutting a 20th-century agreement meant to ensure stability and security in the Black Sea region.

Instead of crossing the narrow Bosporus strait, Erdogan said military ships will instead be able to use Canal Istanbul, which will similarly link the Black and Marmara seas. The project is meant to ease shipping traffic and the risk of accidents in the Bosporus, which runs through the middle of Turkey’s biggest city. It could create jobs for 10,000 people as well as a new city along its route.

Speaking in an interview with CNN-Turk television late Sunday, Erdogan didn’t elaborate on whether any limitations would be imposed on the passage of warships through Canal Istanbul.

Turkey could be courting another controversy with one of the most ambitious projects of Erdogan’s almost two decades in power. After years of work since it was first unveiled in 2011, the ruling party has said the canal has finally become ripe for a tender process.

The option presented by the planned 45-kilometer (28-mile) canal for warships, including navies from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, adds a significant political dimension to what Erdogan dubbed his “crazy project.” It’s already mired in questions over financing and its impact on the environment.

Endangering Treaty?

If Turkey uses it as an alternative route to assert more autonomy, it could potentially trigger an international debate on whether such a move would violate the 1936 Montreux Convention.

The convention limits deployments in the Black Sea to 21 days for navies not belonging to Black Sea states. It also regulates the number and the maximum aggregate tonnage of all foreign naval forces that may pass the Turkish straits while barring the passage of all aircraft carriers.

Erdogan said the convention was only “binding” for the Turkish straits and the Canal Istanbul project would be “totally outside Montreux.”

Responding to a question on whether warships will continue to cross the Turkish straits under the limits set down by the treaty, he said: “We would find a solution for them.”

“If necessary, they may cross here, too,” Erdogan said, referring to the passage of warships through the future channel.

Turkey may charge ships passing through Canal Istanbul, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Monday. However, navigation through the Turkish straits is free, and it’s not clear how Turkey would encourage ships to traverse the new waterway instead.

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