Withdrawal from Montreux Convention opens front between Erdogan and Turkish army groups

Criticism of Erdogan's plan to build a new canal in Istanbul by a hundred retired military officers has led to 10 arrests
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan waves to boats decorated with Turkish flags as they sail through the Bosphorus Strait in Istanbul.

PHOTO/Presidential Press Service via AP  -   Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan waves to boats decorated with Turkish flags as they sail through the Bosphorus Strait in Istanbul

Following Turkey's withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, a Europe-wide agreement aimed at eradicating violence against women, public opinion questioned Turkey's ability to withdraw from other international agreements by presidential decree, i.e. unilaterally and at the behest of President Erdogan. Commenting on this debate, the Speaker of the Turkish National Assembly, Mustafa Şentop, stated that it is constitutionally possible, citing the Montreux Convention as an example. 

President Erdogan approved in late 2019 a project to build a commercial canal in Istanbul similar to those built in Panama or Suez. Turkey plans to open a new canal connecting the Black Sea north of Istanbul with the Sea of Marmara to the south. The administration considers it vital to relieve pressure on Istanbul's Bosphorus Strait, one of the world's most important trade corridors that hosted more than 38,000 ships last year.

The executive's decision is in violation of the Montreux Convention. Signed in 1936, this pact gives Turkey control of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles Straits and regulates the transit of warships from other states. Turkey obtained full control of the straits in exchange for guaranteeing the free transit of civilian vessels in peacetime. The signing of the Montreux Convention also triggered Turkey's remilitarisation of the straits and put an end to the limitations arising from the peace treaties of the First World War. 

Opponents of Erdogan's plans argue that, beyond its impact on the environment, the government's pursuit would threaten the freedom of civilian vessels to cross the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles Strait. However, the Turkish government argues that since the initialling of the Convention, the legal instrument governing the strait's regime, the size and capacity of ships has increased enormously, raising significant safety concerns. 

The new channel would allow ships to cross between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, without passing through straits subject to the provisions of the Montreux Convention: "What has Turkey gained and what has it lost with the Montreux Convention? We will prove it by terminating the Istanbul Kanal," Erdogan declared last year.

El estrecho del Bósforo
PHOTO/REUTERS - The Bosphorus strait
Detention in the face of army criticism

Following the Turkish government's claims, a group of 103 admirals issued a statement on Saturday in the form of a complaint to the executive. "Montreux provided Turkey with the possibility of maintaining its neutrality during World War II. We are of the opinion that it is necessary to avoid any statements and actions that could cause the Montreux Convention, an important treaty in terms of Turkey's survival, to be called into question," the retired military officers alleged in the statement. This prompted a strong governmental reaction to "interference in democratic institutions and public will". 

Turkish security forces on Monday detained 10 admirals who publicly criticised Erdogan's intention to leave the Montreux Convention in a joint statement signed by more than 100 admirals. In the letter, the signatories claimed the role of the army as the guarantor of the Constitution and denounced the Islamist drift led by Erdogan. For its part, the Turkish government has accused the ex-military of interfering in the work of the democratically elected government. 

The Ankara Public Prosecutor's Office has opened a judicial investigation based on Article 316/1 of the Turkish Penal Code. This states that if two or more persons agree to commit any offence against the constitutional order, they will be sentenced to imprisonment from 3 to 12 years depending on the seriousness of the case. The article includes that those who withdraw from this alliance before the intended crime is committed or the investigation is initiated will not be punished.

El proyecto soñado por el presidente Recep Tayyip Erdogan de construir un canal en Estambul que rivalice con los de Suez y Panamá se ha convertido en un enfrentamiento político con el nuevo alcalde de la ciudad. Ekrem Imamoglu
AFP/BULENT KILIC - President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's dream project to build a canal in Istanbul to rival those of Suez and Panama has turned into a political showdown with the city's new mayor. Ekrem Imamoglu

The Prosecutor's Office argued in a statement that the suspects were detained to prevent the destruction of evidence and to find the rest of those involved in the signing of the statement. In the same message, the Prosecutor's Office detailed that the authorities had not detained 4 other suspects because of their advanced age, however, they are obliged to report to the Ankara Police Directorate within three days. The authorities believe that the 14 suspects organised the statement.

A dozen arrests were made at the start of the investigation. Two of the admirals, Ergun Mengi and Atilla Kezek, were arrested in the capital, Ankara; two others, Turgay Erdag and Ali Sadi Ünsal, in the city of Izmit in the northwest of the country; and the remaining six, Alaettin Sevim, Ramazan Cem Gürdeniz, Nadir Hakan Eraydın, Bülent Olcay, Kadir Sagdıç and Türker Ertürk, in Istanbul. They were all taken to court in Ankara.

Among those arrested is Cem Gürdeniz, a Turkish army admiral known for promoting the new 'Blue Homeland' maritime doctrine, which Turkey is using in its struggle for control and domination of natural resources in the eastern Mediterranean against Greece, Cyprus and Egypt. Gürdeniz was accused of being part of the alleged coup in March 2003, but was later acquitted. 

The defence ministry has claimed that the statement "will only negatively affect the morale and motivation of the personnel and make the enemies happy". "We firmly believe that the independent Turkish judicial system will do what is necessary," the ministry added. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called an Extraordinary Council of Ministers on Monday to discuss the response.

Los manifestantes, que se oponen a un proyecto de canal masivo, se reúnen frente a la dirección provincial de medio ambiente y urbanismo en Estambul, el 2 de enero de 2020.
AP/LEFTERIS PITARAKIS - Protesters, who oppose a massive canal project, gather in front of the provincial environment and urban planning directorate in Istanbul, Jan. 2, 2020.

Fahrettin Altun, the presidency's communications director, has lashed out at those who have not criticised the letter. "The only thing all those who respect democracy and the will of the people can do is to take a stand against this insensitive, no-holds-barred statement," he said. "If we remain silent at the slightest hint of a coup attempt, how can we protect our country and nation against treacherous plans," Altun added. 

The accusations of a military coup in the face of a missive backed by only a hundred or so retired military personnel reflect the autocratic and reactionary drift Turkey is going down. Any criticism is labelled as a frontal attack on the constitution, and subsequently seized upon to redirect President Erdogan's unilateral behaviour even more forcefully.