The limits of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s power have become an issue in Turkish politics. This, following Erdoğan’s March 20 decision to exit the Istanbul Convention on Combating Violence Against Women. Since the Istanbul Convention is an international agreement that was ratified by the Turkish parliament, questions are being asked about the fate of other international treaties, such as the Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits (1936).
In fact, since Erdoğan first declared his intention in 2011 to construct an “Istanbul Canal,” as an alternative parallel maritime route to the Bosphorus, debate about the Montreux convention has grown. The matter became a hot topic on April 3 when 104 retired Turkish navy admirals signed an online petition warning the government against amending the Montreux Convention.
Given the fact that Erdoğan’s last statement on the Istanbul Canal and the Montreux Convention’s status was made during a TV interview in January, the timing of the petition seems to have ulterior motives. The petition coincides with two additional incidents that are unrelated to the convention. The retired military personnel seem to have decided to capitalize on the Montreux matter to protest against the creeping penetration of Islamic religious groups into the Turkish army.
The Montreux Convention in Turkish politics
The series of events started on March 24 when a new regulation was enacted regarding admissions to the Turkish military colleges (“war academies”). The new regulation annulled a regulation whereby candidates were barred from the colleges if their family members had been affiliated with “an anti-system, illegal organization,” including religious orders. The new regulation clearly was meant to pave the way for disciples of Turkish Islamic religious orders to enter the higher ranks of the Turkish army. In other words, Erdoğan’s government acted to facilitate the penetration of pro-regime Islamists into the army.
The day after the conditions for joining the military academies were amended, a second incident shook Ankara. Pictures of Admiral Mehmet Sari—who currently serves in the navy as an admiral of naval supplies—surfaced on the internet, showing him in uniform praying at a religious lodge, wearing an Islamic turban and a vestment. Unsurprisingly, the Turkish secular press declared this a “scandal,” accusing the government of failing to draw appropriate lessons from the failed 2016 coup attempt—for which Fethullah Gülen’s religious order was held responsible. This followed another secular outcry against Erdogan, upon his removal in March of the portrait of Atatürk from state medals and orders.
In the aftermath of the failed coup attempt in 2016, Erdoğan shut down military high schools, taking precautions against the development of a “coup culture” in the military. Instead, he established a National Defense University (NDU). This was considered a way for graduates of the Imam Hatip Religious Schools to rise in the ranks of the Turkish army. Indeed, to accelerate the process, Erdoğan also shortened officer courses from four years to one.
Traditionally the Turkish navy has been considered among the core guardians of Turkish secularism and of Atatürk’s legacy. In 1997, Admiral Güven Erkaya was one of the main actors in the “Post-Modern Military Coup” of Feb. 28, 1997, against the Islamist-led government of Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan. He served then as the commander of the Turkish navy, and tagged political Islam as the most serious threat to the state beyond the separatist PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party). Similarly in 2012, the Turkish navy became the focus of attention during the “Sledgehammer” (Balyoz) probe when 36 admirals and 115 officers were sentenced to imprisonment for planning a military coup. Thus, unrest among retired admirals who are witnessing the legacy of Atatürk fade should not surprise anyone.
The online “Montreux Petition” expressed the discontent of retired admirals regarding the decreasing influence of Atatürkism and secularism. In order not to be charged as Gülenists, they felt the necessity to criticize Gülenists as terrorists for infiltrating army ranks and conducting the failed coup attempt. The admirals asked the government to act against all attempts against Atatürkism; implying that they disagreed with the change in admissions policy regarding military colleges and are for the dismissal of Admiral Sari.
Unsurprisingly, the government did not view this petition as an act of constructive criticism. Instead, all media channels assisted senior government officials in attacking the retired admirals as “remnants of the military coup culture of the Turkish army.”
The government could have taken the petition as a professional, friendly warning regarding the Montreux Convention only. But given the military coup culture and the recent negative memories of the failed 2016 coup attempt, it chose not to do so. Moreover, the petition’s emphasis on the strategic importance of Montreux for Turkey and the dangers for Turkish national security were also disregarded.
Instead, a government prosecutor in Ankara filed a lawsuit against signatories of the petition. Ten leading signatories, including the well-known Admiral Cem Gürdeniz (who also is known as one of the architects of Turkey’s “Blue Homeland” doctrine), were taken into custody.
Montreux, Turkish foreign policy and the Istanbul Canal
Turkey regards the Montreux Convention as a byproduct of the 1923 Lausanne Peace Agreement. While Lausanne demilitarized the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits completely, the Montreux Convention allowed the Turkish army to reclaim its positions in this strategic area. In addition, the convention provided Turkey with an important diplomatic tool allowing neutrality when the Black Sea coastal states are engaged in war. Hence for Turkey, the Montreux Convention is considered an insurance policy for its relations with its neighbors in the Black Sea in general, and Russia in particular.
In the past, Russia, Turkey’s historical nemesis, held a dim view of the convention. At the end of World War II, the Soviet Union demanded two army bases in the straits and asked to amend the convention to allow for the right of free passage for its warships through the straits. Ankara considered these Russian demands as harmful to Turkish national security. As a result, Turkey sought to align with the Western camp and upheld the convention. Ever since then, Turkey has considered the convention its certificate of sovereignty in the straits. Unlike the Lausanne Treaty, article 13 of the Montreux Convention requires Black Sea coastal countries to ask for Turkish permission of passage through the straits eight days in advance, while other states must inform the Turkish authorities 14 days before their passage.
Within years, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow’s attitude towards the convention began to change. Thanks to the Montreux clause which allows only Black Sea coastal states to sail warships for more than three weeks in the Black Sea, Russia began to see Montreux as an important strategic asset. According to the convention, the passage of aircraft carriers and submarines is not allowed. Nevertheless, in 1976 and 1981, Turkey allowed the Russian Kiev and Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carriers to pass through the straits—despite NATO protests. In 2017, Turkey also allowed the passage of Russian submarines from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean and back.
In contrast, during the 2008 Georgian-Russian war, Ankara did not allow the American USNS Comfort and USNS Mercy hospital ships to pass through the straits. This prevented a crisis with Russia.
In 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine, Turkey restricted NATO operations meant to show solidarity with Ukraine by insisting on Montreux’s strict clause regarding a three weeks stay in the Black Sea. Consequently, Western leaders began to question the usefulness of the convention. Most recently, on April 9, 2021, the United States said that it may send warships to the Black Sea to demonstrate solidarity with Ukraine; another test of Turkey in the framework of the Montreux Convention.
Given this strategic picture, many secular Turks, influenced by a Eurasianist (Avrasyacilik) outlook, have begun to advocate for strategic rapprochement between Turkey and a Russia-China axis. This includes secular ex-army generals and admirals who call themselves as Ulusalcılar (nation-statists). They see the West as a potential threat to Turkey’s national security. They are extremely concerned about potential Western demands for change in the terms of Montreux. The recent Montreux petition is an attempt to preserve the status quo in the straits.
Inevitably, this Avrasyacilik approach considers Erdoğan’s grandiose “Istanbul Canal” project a threat because it could force renegotiation of the Montreux Convention.
Nevertheless, Erdoğan rejects such a link between Montreux and his new canal project. From his perspective, the new canal will not change the regime in the straits. Rather it will provide Turkey with new diplomatic leverage by giving discretion on the right of passage in the Istanbul Canal to the Turkish government. Apart from these strategic calculations, Erdoğan seeks public support by emphasizing the environmental danger that maritime passages pose for the city of Istanbul. Roughly speaking, 360 million tons of cargo annually pass through the straits. This includes crude oil and chemical compounds. Apart from frequent ship accidents that damage properties along the Bosphorus, the 1979 fire on the Independenta crude oil tanker is remembered as an unforgettable ecological nightmare for many inhabitants of Istanbul.
While ecological consideration may be a legitimate rationale for constructing the new canal, many environmental activists oppose its construction because it could damage the ecosystem, resulting in the death of fish and other underwater species. Erdoğan’s project is also questionable from an economic perspective. According to feasibility studies, the construction costs of the Istanbul canal are estimated as 75 billion Turkish Liras (approximately $9.2 billion). Current revenue from the Bosphorus does not justify this investment.
The Montreux petition once again revealed longstanding tensions between the civilian Turkish government and the Turkish military. The petition highlights the continuation of the interventionist character of the Turkish army in Turkish politics. The admirals who signed the petition see the Montreux Convention as an inseparable part of Atatürk’s diplomatic legacy. They are not only concerned about Montreux’s re-amendment due to strategic reasons, but also fear the breach of the Montreux status quo for the sake of Erdoğan’s Istanbul Canal, which will overshadow Atatürk’s success with another Erdoğan mega-project.
Erdoğan is using this dispute for his own political gain, by portraying himself as a repeat victim of Turkish Armed Forces interventionism in civilian matters. At the same time, the dispute reveals the depth of creeping Islamization in the Turkish army. In the past, religious military officers had to conceal their identities; today, under Erdoğan, they dare to visit religious lodges in uniform. The recent amendment in the admissions policy to the military academies also suggests further Islamist penetration into what has been a bastion of Turkish secularism.
For the moment, Erdoğan is likely to uphold the Montreux Convention. Time will tell whether Erdoğan’s grandiose Istanbul canal project will cause an earthquake in Turkish domestic politics and in its relations with the West.
Dr. Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak is an expert on contemporary Turkish politics and foreign policy, Turkish-Israeli relations, and the Kurds. He is co-editor of Turkeyscope, a publication of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University.
This article was first published by the Jerusalem Institute of Strategy and Security.