Istanbul, 23 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The Turkish Straits -- the Bosphorus, the Dardanelles and the Sea of Marmara, divide the city of Istanbul and separate Europe and Asia. The straits have been a source of conflict and a goal of conquest for many centuries.
The straits also link Black Sea ports with the rest of the world, presenting Turkey with the dilemma of ensuring its own interests while respecting international agreements.
At any time there are up to 18 ships passing through the narrow, winding 30-km long Bosphorus. With the development of the Caspian oil and gas fields, the already strained sea lanes through the straits will be further burdened. For the time being the only way out for the oil and gas will be through existing pipelines to the Black Sea ports of Novorossiisk in Russia and Supsa in Georgia (the Supsa pipeline is currently under repairs and may be open in October).
Experts in Turkey say the risks of increased traffic by ever larger tankers is unacceptable as some ten million people now inhabit Istanbul along both sides of the southern entrance to the Bosphorus.
Turkey advocates the construction of a pipeline from Baku to Ceyhan on the Mediterranean Sea to reduce the risk of a tanker-related catastrophe to Istanbul, the Black Sea and the Aegean. The 1700 km Baku - Ceyhan pipeline could become the main export pipeline for Azeri oil, handling vastly increased quantities -- reaching some 800,0000 barrels a day between 2005 and 2010.But the pipeline will traverse politically and seismically unstable territory in Georgia and Turkey.
Russia advocates strengthening its existing pipeline from Baku to Novorossiisk from where tankers would ship the oil through the Straits. Alternatively, a second pipeline could be built between the Bulgarian port of Burgas and the Greek Aegean port of Alexandropolis -- bypassing the straits but still increasing the environmental risk to the Black Sea and the Aegean.-- and raising costs through construction of another pipeline and more port facilities. Ceyhan, in contrast, already exists as a pipeline terminus, albeit largely in disuse as it was built to handle Iraqi oil.
The Turkish government hopes a final decision will be made on financing the $2.5 to $3 billion construction of the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline by October. The US supports construction of Baku-Ceyhan and opposes a third variant which would transit Iran to the Persian Gulf.
One of the many outspoken critics of further expansion of traffic in the straits is Istanbul Technical University professor Orhan Kural.
"It is always possible to have a big accident in the Bosphorus and this would threaten all of Istanbul. There are also ships that carry LPG (liquid petroleum gas). If there is an explosion it will threaten the whole of Istanbul like an atomic bomb and it can also reach 50 kilometers in diameter. This means this is the end of Istanbul."
Kural calls for internationally publicizing the imminent threat because local protests have proven ineffective.
Marmara University professor of international law, Hakan Baykal, notes the 1936 Montreux convention gives Turkey "nearly full sovereignty" over the straits. "If you look at the Montreux convention it gives every power to Turkey, because not every ship can pass as they please. This is a regime of a kind of innocent passage. So you have to interpret it according to the provisions of the customs of international law concerning straits. So, if the passage is prejudicial to your peace, good order and security, you can stop the passage or exercise regulations and laws."
Baykal says subsequent international conventions further confirm Turkey's right to stop ships which are not in innocent passage.
Retired Admiral Guven Erkaya, heads the Turkish State Management and Information System Project Office, which is developing a monitoring and control system for the straits. He told RFE/RL that:
"So far here, in the straits, the figure for 1997 is about 60 million tons of oil passed through Bosphorus, transported by the oil tankers. Last year almost 2,500 full oil tankers passed through the Bosphorus. The size of the tankers is getting bigger and bigger. The most suitable tanker for oil transportation is now somewhere between 250 meters and 300 meters. The problem here is because of the narrow straits. It is two problems. One is the amount of the oil that should be transported and the second is the size of the ship."
Admiral Erkaya says the straits are suitable for ships of less than 150 meters in length. He predicts that if Turkey tries to decrease the number of ships passing through the straits, then the size of the ships will increase and the straits could become clogged with tankers of between 300 and 350 meters in length, which he says are unsuitable for safe navigation in the straits. In his words, "that is the struggle here now -- if there is more oil in the future, then there will be more ships in the straits."
Admiral Erkaya notes that last year about 51,000 ships passed through the straits, an average of 140 ships per day. Only seven percent of the ships were at least 200 meters in length, but their presence forced the repeated closure of the straits to other traffic.
Six years ago, Turkey published regulations for the straits, establishing a traffic separation scheme, approved by the International Maritime Organization in London, which in turn recommended that the Turkish authorities have the right to suspend traffic in one or both directions whenever a ship in excess of 150 meters in length. As a result, last year 3,774 ships that had to wait at the entrance to the Bosphorus because of larger ships passing through. Admiral Erkaya says traffic in the Bosphorus was suspended for a total of 1,550 hours last year.
"The Russians are now complaining because of so much waiting and so many suspensions and they are trying to change the IMO rules and recommendations. The Russians' objective is to make it possible for the tankers to pass through the straits, with no restrictions, with no regulations so that there would be no waiting."
Erkaya notes barely 60 percent of tankers took on pilots, who are mandatory only for ships making port calls in Turkey, but not for those passing through.
"If there is an accident between two tankers and one tanker and a cargo ship, the result would be a very unacceptable risk because of the oil catching fire or spilling in the Bosphorus. So this risk... will increase in the future. So we have to regulate by imposing regulations and by installing a vessel traffic service system in the Bosphorus. This is the struggle now between the Russian Federation, other nations and Turkey. The Montreux Convention says as a principle that merchant ships will have the right of free passage through the straits and the second article of the Montreux convention says that in peacetime, day and night, merchant ships have the right of free passage through the straits, whatever their cargo and whatever their flag, with no formalities. So we accept that as an 'entry passage' here according to the convention, but we say that free passage should be 'safe free passage' not 'unsafe free passage'."
Admiral Erkaya predicts that once Turkey imposes regulations, other states could easily argue this is against free passage. But he insists Turkey has the right to impose some regulations to make passage safe..
One way is through the installation of a vessel traffic service system due to become operational at the beginning of the year 2000. There will be eight radar sites in the Bosphorus and five radar sites in the Dardanelles. The radar sites will be fitted with TV cameras and night vision cameras, meteorological equipment, devices for measuring currents, direction finders and radar beacons. The Turkish government has decided to finance the system but has yet to determine whether it will be a civilian operation or run by the coast guard.