ISTANBUL: Senior Turkish officials on Sunday slammed an open letter signed by more than 100 retired admirals warning of a possible threat to a treaty governing the use of Turkey’s key waterways.
Turkey’s approval last month of plans to develop a navigation canal in Istanbul comparable to the Panama or Suez canals opened the debate on the Montreux Convention of 1936.
Canal Istanbul is the most ambitious of what President Recep Tayyip Erdogan calls his crazy plans, which have seen him transform Turkey’s infrastructure with new airports, bridges, roads and tunnels during his 18 years in power. Turkish officials say the new canal is vital in relieving pressure on Istanbul’s Bosporus Strait, a key global trade route that saw more than 38,000 ships pass last year.
The waterway between Europe and Asia is obstructed by maritime traffic and has experienced several shipping accidents in recent years.
But opponents say that aside from its environmental impact, the new canal venture could undermine the Montreux deal.
The convention guarantees the free passage through the Strait of the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles of civilian ships in times of peace and war.
It also regulates the use of the straits by military vessels from non-Black Sea states.
The new canal would allow ships to transit between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea without passing through part of the straits covered by the treaty.
Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, analyst at the German Marshall Fund, said whether the new channel would affect the Montreux rules remained ambiguous.
Montreux is a convention that guarantees the safety of turkeys. Even if the new channel is not bound by the treaty, Turkey must abide by its terms unilaterally, he told AFP.
The proposed 75 billion pound ($ 9.8 billion) alternative would run west of the Bosphorus along a 45-kilometer (28-mile) road.
Unluhisarcikli said if the new canal was covered by the Montreux Treaty, Turkey could not demand royalties from commercial ships.
In their letter, 104 retired admirals said it was concerning to open the Treaty of Montreux to debate, calling it a deal that best protects Turkish interests.
We are of the opinion to refrain from any kind of rhetoric or action that could make the Montreux Convention … a subject of controversy, they said.
The letter sparked a strong response from senior government officials, while prosecutors in Ankara also opened an investigation.
Not only those who signed, but also those who encourage them will be brought to justice, Fahrettin Altun, a senior media adviser at Erdogans, said on Twitter, referring to the investigation.
Erdogan is expected to address the issue at a meeting on Monday at 12:00 GMT, the presidency said.
Presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said the statement recalled the days of coups.
They should know that our esteemed nation and its representatives will never allow this mentality, he tweeted. The Turkish army, which has long seen itself as the guarantor of the country’s secular constitution, staged three coups d’état between 1960 and 1980.
The Erdogans government also survived a July 2016 coup attempt it blamed on supporters of US-based Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen.
The letter is considered the most significant military intervention in politics since 2016.
The Defense Ministry said that the publication of such a memorandum serves no purpose other than to undermine our democracy, to negatively influence the morale and motivation of the personnel of the Turkish armed forces, and to please our enemies. , in a press release.
We are fully convinced that the independent Turkish justice will do what is necessary, the ministry said. Knowing and fully aware of the gains and losses arising from international agreements, the Turkish armed forces cannot be instrumentalized to serve the ambitions, greed and personal goals of individuals who have no official functions or responsibilities.
Istanbul’s mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu, of the opposition CHP party, is one of the most ardent opponents of the canal project on financial and environmental grounds.
In November, the Home Office launched an investigation into the mayor over his opposition to the canal.
The investigation by the Ministry’s Property Inspectorate focuses on posters containing the phrases, either Canal or Istanbul and Who needs the Istanbul Canal?
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