By Mehmet Bildik*
The Montreux Convention, which is an essential element in the context of Black Sea and Mediterranean security and stability, has been properly and impartially implemented by Turkey for more than seven decades. The successful implementation of the Montreux Convention since 1936 is a testimony of the balance carefully established by the convention. It is a 1936 agreement that gives Turkey control over the Bosporus Strait and Dardanelles and regulates the transit of naval warships. The convention gives Turkey full control over the strait and guarantees the free passage of civilian vessels in peacetime. According to Article 20 of the Montreux Convention; “In time of war, Turkey being belligerent, the provisions of Articles 10 to 18 shall not be applicable; the passage of warships shall be left entirely to the discretion of the Turkish Government.” It also restricts the passage of naval ships not belonging to Black Sea states. The terms of the convention have been the source of controversy over the years, most notably concerning the Russian’s military access to the Mediterranean Sea and Middle East.
The downing of the Russian jet by Turkey on November 24, 2015, the first time in half century that a NATO member has shot down a Russian aircraft, triggered a harsh response from Russia. Russia has begun the deployment of long-range S-400 air defense missile systems to Syria. A Russian warship passed through Istanbul’s Bosphorus en route to the Mediterranean on December 6, 2015 when one soldier was seen on a passing boat holding a ground-to-air missile. The soldier held the missile on his shoulder in the shooting position while passing Russia’s warship. Thereupon, three NATO warships also dropped anchor off Istanbul’s Sarayburnu coast. Russia has continued to flex its military muscle in the Mediterranean Sea where it has conducted a drill in the Eastern Mediterranean to test one of its anti-submarine destroyers’ surface -to-air missile defense systems, as well as the AK-100 universal caliber automatic cannon and the AK-630 small caliber anti-aircraft artillery.
Turkey has full control over the straits under the Montreux Convention signed in 1936; Turkey also has the authority to prevent military vessels from passing through its straits if they are those of a country it is at war or in imminent danger of war. Russia depends on the unrestricted access to the strait afforded it under the Montreux convention. Through the strait, it sends supplies to Syria from its Novorossiysk naval base in the Black Sea to Russian ports in Tartus and Latkia. If Turkey had invoked its trump card by closing its strait to Russian ships, this would deal a serious blow to Russia’s military campaign in Syria. Presently Russia maintains its military presence in Syria by supplying its troops there with Ropucha and Alligator-class landing ships that pass through the Turkish strait.
Prior to the Russian jet downed by Turkey in 2015, Moscow ignored the calls by Ankara to put an “immediate end” to its airstrikes on Turkmen villages along the border. Russia has financial and geopolitical interest in keeping its retaliation asymmetrical by bombing Turkmen villages in Syria while refraining from engaging with Turkey in military confrontation directly. Turkey could have feasibly perceived Russia’s military buildup along the Turkish-Syrian border as a serious threat and could have invoked its most valuable trump card for the Turkish Straits.However, it is unlikely that Turkey would close its straits unless a large scale war erupted. If Russia could not send its ships through the Turkish strait for any reason, the Russian soldiers deployed in Syria may find themselves in a very similar position as General Paulus in World War II, who led Germany’s drive on Stalingrad beginning in 1942. His troops were ultimately forced to surrender after their assistance from Germany’s sixth army was cut off by Soviet Army formations. The German’s defeat at Stalingrad is said to have marked a turning point in the war, leading to the allies’ victory in 1945.
Russia has now created its own virtual “ no-fly zone” in Syria since 30 September 2015. In this context, many refugees have continued to pile up near the Turkish-Syrian border in January and February 2016 as Russian and Assad forces bombarded Turkmen villages in the region in which Russian forces have been intensified, shelling in the Bayırbucak region of northwestern Syria. While Russian support of the Kurds in the Middle East began to destabilize NATO’s southern border, Turkish security forces had already been engaged in large scale operations against PKK terrorism in Silopi, Cizre, and Diyarbakır to root out militants who set up barricades, dug trenches, and primed explosives to stave off government authorities. In addition to such maneuvers, a Russian SU-34 violated Turkish airspace once again in January 2016. In reaction to this latest infringement, NATO called on Russia “ to act responsibly and fully respect NATO airspace.”
Germany and Turkey have pledged to exert joint efforts to secure NATO’s involvement in curbing the refugee flow to Europe. On February 8 German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Turkey, she announced that they would work “together, as Turkey and Germany will propose NATO’s engagement concerning all results of the refugee flow from Syria as an agenda item to NATO.” On that point, Turkey will especially exert joint efforts for the effective use of NATO’s observation and surveillance mechanisms on the border and in the Aegean Sea. It was announced by the alliance’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg after the Defense Minister Meeting in Brussels that NATO launched an unprecedented naval mission in the Aegean Sea to start maritime surveillance activity on Turkish coasts. The move follows a request by alliance members Germany, Greece and Turkey for assistance in tackling Europe’s biggest migrant crisis Since World War II. Furthermore, NATO would be able to control important waterways through the Aegean Sea without constraint by the Montreux Convention.
NATO’s strong presence on the Aegean Sea will give an advantage to Turkey against Russia for the Syrian chessboard. The fact that Russia has continued to target Turkmen villages along the Turkish Syrian border, despite Turkey’s demands that it stop, would theoretically be enough for Turkey to invoke Article 20 of the Montreux Convention. Hopefully, NATO presence on the Aegean Sea without constraint by Montreux will protect the status qou of the convention in favor of Turkey, and as long as Russia continues its bombing in Syria, the refugee flow through the Aegean Sea will be maintained, which will elongate the time of NATO’s maritime patrols and exercise over there. Therefore, Russia and Russian backed groups in Syria will suffer the same fate of General Paulus’ Army if Russian naval ships are constrained from reaching the eastern Mediterranean and are unable to supply their troops and proxies with the necessary resources.
*Mehmet Bildik is a research fellow studying military and strategic affairs with the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a research assistant at the military and strategic affairs cyber security program of The Institute for National Security Studies under the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He received his MA degree at Bucharest National School of Political Science and Public Administrative Studies as a Security and Diplomacy Scholarship holder under the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.