March 09, 2022
Though security concerns and international borders often change over time, there are certain geographical chokeholds that retain their strategic importance regardless. The Bosphorus, cleaving apart Europe and Asia and funneling the Black Sea into the Mediterranean, is exactly such a locale. For almost two centuries, European powers chipped away at a shrinking Ottoman Empire, in many respects because of the Bosphorus. The current crisis in Ukraine has brought this issue to the fore once more as Turkey, much like its straits, has found itself caught between its NATO allies and its ties with Russia.
There was a time when the Black Sea was referred to as the “Ottoman lake,” as its entire coastal territory was under Turkish control. However, there — as on the islands of the Mediterranean, the Holy Land, the oil fields of the Middle East, and Suez — Turkish influence was gradually reduced. Control of the Bosphorus remained, however, and was not addressed formally until the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923.
Ismet Inonu, who had begun his career in the sultan’s fading army, putting down rebellions in Yemen and the Balkans, found himself at Lausanne as prime minister following the empire’s downfall. He sought to retain Turkish control over the area, while mitigating foreign ambitions and strategic interests over the maritime territory. The agreement, which lasted 13 years, attempted to recognize “the principle of freedom of transit and of navigation by sea and by air in the Strait of the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmora and the Bosphorus.” This principle remains contentious to the present day.
The “complete freedom of navigation and passage” of commercial and military vessels under any flag proved contentious, as they were the impositions of foreign interests on a capitulated power. It was, therefore, unsurprising that, following the rise of fascist Italy, the establishment of the stable Ataturk government and increased Soviet encroachment in the Mediterranean, calls for a renewed treaty governing the Turkish Straits were made in the mid-1930s.
In allowing it to restrict the passage of warships not belonging to Black Sea states, the Montreux Convention of 1936 returned to Turkey an element of control of the maritime passage, while also greatly limiting the size and weaponry of military vessels passing through. Unchanged since its adoption, this convention has been held up as a rare functioning example of the rules-based international order, given that it is mostly respected and consistently implemented.
This convention has been held up as a rare functioning example of the rules-based international order, given that it is mostly respected and consistently implemented.
Zaid M. Belbagi
Now in its ninth decade, the Montreux Convention, which was initially adopted for 20 years, has not changed due to its successive automatic renewals in lieu of any calls for revision by its signatories. However, in recent years, its stipulations have caused increased controversy as Russia has sought to exert its influence over the Black Sea. In the same way that Joseph Stalin’s demands to build Soviet naval bases along the straits forced Turkey to join NATO, Turkey has allowed British, French and American military shipping into the Black Sea to combat Russian encroachment.
Despite having diligently enforced the legal restrictions under the Montreux Convention, Turkey has increasingly grown disillusioned with the status quo, most recently planning to circumvent the Bosphorus (and the convention that governs its use) with the parallel Istanbul Canal project. This waterway is intended to allow Turkey to draw revenue and regain control of shipping in the region, which it signed away with the Montreux Convention.
However, the canal project remains hugely expensive and with untold potential environmental consequences. It is, therefore, unsurprising that, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Montreux is back on the agenda. Turkey last week closed the straits to military shipping. Citing Article 19, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said “Turkey will implement all provisions of (the) Montreux Convention in a transparent manner.” Though the full impact of this move is unclear, by marooning the Russian southern fleet in the Black Sea and breaking the link between its bases at Sevastopol and Tartus, this once-in-a-generation application of the clause highlights the present-day use of antiquated treaties. Several merchant ships have already been mistakenly hit by Russian shells since the conflict broke out — without this agreement, the Black Sea would be a much more dangerous place.
By positing itself internationally as seemingly bound by a treaty that regulates its use and control of its own geography, Turkey has highlighted both its inability to support Russia and its enduring importance to the West and NATO. Turkey today finds itself in a similar situation to the Ottoman Empire when it sought the support of France and Britain to contain Russia’s imperial ambitions in the Crimea in the 19th century. Though the limitations of Montreux may be increasingly clear, the long-running issue of who should control the strategically vital link between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean is more important than ever.
If the demilitarization of the straits is what focused minds at Lausanne 99 years ago, it should be of the same, if not greater, importance as war rages in Ukraine today.
• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the GCC.
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