How Could the Istanbul Canal Project Affect Regional Stability?

By Chris Deliso

October 28, 2020

Frequently overlooked because its future is unclear, the Istanbul Canal project tops the list of analytical issues because it has relevance for the entire balance of economic, military and political power between Greece and Turkey – and, quite possibly, for the environmental health of the Black Sea and Aegean/Mediterranean Seas.

My first key analytical question concerns a project that may never happen. However, its implications are so significant that it must be considered from several viewpoints.

In April 2013, Hurriyet Daily News reported  that the Turkish government was moving ahead with something that then-Prime Minister Erdoğan whimsically called a “crazy project”: to connect the Black Sea and Marmara Sea by means of a new canal, something that would effectively make the historic core of Istanbul’s European side into an island.

First declared by the Turkish leader during his 2011 re-election campaign, the canal as of 2013 was slated to be a 45-to-50-kilometer waterway that will “link the inner Marmara Sea to the Black Sea, according to plans. The canal will be 25 meters deep and up to 150 meters wide.” The original budget was set for $12 billion, with a completion date of 2023, to match the national independence centennial.

The government’s argument (then and thereafter) was that a new canal would lessen the congestion of tanker traffic from the Bosporus, limiting the risk of vessel collisions in the busy waterways surrounding Istanbul. Nevertheless, safety standards in the Bosporus have been modernized in recent decades and collisions are very rare.

As of 2020, construction had not started, but domestic opposition in Turkey (especially in Istanbul, where an opposition candidate had won Erdoğan’s former mayoral post) was rising on cost, environmental and corruption concerns.  In January 2020, it was reported that property along the planned canal route had been purchased by close relatives of the Turkish president and his close allies, the Qatari royal family.

In December 2019, the new Istanbul authorities announcing they were withdrawing municipal support for the Protocol that oversees construction plans. Despite this development, the national government continued with its plans, announcing the first tenders in March 2020.

WHY THIS HAS GEOSTRATEGIC IMPORTANCE

It is highly likely that the idea of a new Istanbul canal emerged from the general trajectory of naval policy innovations that have included offshore energy exploration in contested waters and a declared Exclusive Economic Zone with the factional government in Tripoli. In this analysis, a second canal becomes important as a legal response: it would allow Turkey to go beyond the 1936 Monttreaux Convention, which grants free passage to all vessels using the Bosporus and which limits military vessels within that strait to countries sharing a Black Sea border.

Erdoğan himself alluded to an unspecified ‘political’ aspect of a new canal in discussing the issue in 2020. As critics have noted, it would not make sense for commercial shipping to pay fees to go through a new canal considering the existing presence of the Bosporus, which in any case has not seen a major accident in many years.

Thus, where the political calculations become more serious is in terms of how Turkey could leverage the facilitation of non-Black Sea powers’ navies into that sea by use of a new canal. Whether the great power in question by China, the US or some other, the question remains as to how Turkey could seek to trade political favors by allowing such an engagement. Would it allow a US fleet access to the Black Sea, perhaps, in exchange for allowing it to annex northern Cyprus? Would it allow Chinese vessels into the sea in return for some military or economic cooperation?

The only guarantee is that such a scenario would be highly negative for Greek interests, as the canal represents a potential maritime asset that Greece cannot match.

ECOLOGICAL ISSUES

Local opponents of the canal project have cited fears that construction will destroy forests, contaminate groundwater, and eliminate a lake that is vital for the drinking water of 20 percent of city residents. Making Istanbul an island would also have the result of exposing it to more extreme weather in future. But the biggest fear is actually much more far-reaching. In January 2020, Marc Pierini of Carnegie Europe argued that opening an artificial waterway that would flood both the Black and Marmara Seas with new water could lead to an international environmental disaster capable of permanently changing the hydrological balance of the seas.

If such an event were to happen, it could also have a severe impact on the economies of all regional countries, particularly if maritime species were adversely affected. Nothing similar to what Turkey envisions has been tried in this region since the Suez Canal, and there is no firm guarantee that it can be completed in a way that does not harm the environment. Thus, far from being an issue of simple national will, it is one that affects all nations having a maritime border- from Russia to Spain.

WHAT THE PROJECT SAYS ABOUT THE TURKISH PRESIDENT- LEGACY ISSUES

An interesting and completely overlooked aspect of the Canal Istanbul project is what it says about the man who envisioned it. Since 2003, President Erdoğan has systematically dismantled the entire Kemalist system upon which modern Turkey was founded, opting instead for the romantic-imbued former great Islamic empire of the Ottomans. Yet with the canal project, it seems that he is not content to compete with either the man who conquered the city (Mehmet II) or the one who expanded the empire to its greatest degree (Suleiman the Magnificent).

No, with the canal project’s plan for a historic change to the very physicality of the city, what we are seeing with Erdoğan now is perhaps a personal competition with the very man who built the city in the first place- Emperor Constantine the Great. Indeed, there would be no greater way for the Turkish leader to put his stamp of authority (and by extension, the Turkish nation’s in general) on the storied city than by fundamentally altering its very physical existence for the first time since the 4th century. Whether or not he actually has this intention is immaterial, because it will become part of the nationalist narrative, should he succeed in completing the project.

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