Crimea River – Will the Syrian Conflict spread into the Black Sea?

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Potentially the first time anyone’s been told to stay ON someone’s lawn.

As Russia continues to conduct port visits and provide weapons to Syria amidst the violence, it does so with a preponderance of transits through the Turkish Straits.

The Montreux Convention of 1937 set forth guidelines for warship transit in the Dardanelles Straits, for which, Turkey was established as gatekeeper. Black Sea littoral nations are permitted uncontested warship transit (with a few caveats), yet Turkey is the initial authority in both restricting access to foreign warships and disputing local (riparian) warship transits during times of war.

For thousands of years, both the limits of anti-access and the role of gatekeeper have been contested by the Black Sea littoral nations (primarily Russia and the Ottomans). The authority granted by the Montreux Convetion has, for the most part, gone uncontested as global powers acknowledge the strength in stability that anti-access regulations provide to the region, but the recent conflict in Syria poses a dilemma for regional powers, primarily Turkey. Should Turkey restrict the transit of Russian warships through the Straits that are providing military support and weapons to Syria? With Russia’s only warm-water port based in Syria at Tartus, Russian diplomats would (on the surface) contest any such restriction and claim that any and all transits from the Black Sea to Syria are part of ongoing alliances and in support of established naval facility agreements.

Yet in this situation Turkey has the upper hand thanks to the Montreux Convention, specifically in Article 20:

“In time of war, Turkey being belligerent …the passage of warships shall be left entirely to the discretion of the Turkish Government.”

With the recent downing of a Turkish warplane and various conflicts on the Syrian border, a “time of war” is a reasonable description for Turkey. Any future Turkish political decisions to employ military operations in Syria should solidify Turkey as a “belligerent.” If these events were to unfold and Turkey enacted Article 20 on the Russian Navy, the question remains as to which, if any, international body would attempt to stop Turkey. Although many might assume that the U.N. is the appropriate governing body for such discussions, it is important to recognize that the Montreux Convention has gone virtually unchallenged since inception and still includes outdated references to things such as the League of Nations. This small loophole may be enough for Turkey to disregard any public or diplomatic outrage from Russia and its allies and deny Mediterranean access to the Russian Black Sea Navy.

A.J. “Squared-Away” is a husband, father, and U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer.He has deployed on patrol boats, destroyers, and aircraft carriers to the Mediterranean, Persian Gulf, and aboard Iraqi oil terminals. He is currently a student at an advanced military planner course. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

3 thoughts on “Crimea River – Will the Syrian Conflict spread into the Black Sea?”

  1. AJ,

    Interesting post – definitely learned something new with regards to this Convention. That being said, do you think Turkey, even though it might be within its right, would try to enforce its treaty rights and close the Straits to the Russians? I’m not sure there’s a practical policy objective Turkey would thereby gain, especially given the risk of the Russians ignoring the imposition and attempting to force the Straits. With this risk in mind I imagine all of Turkey’s NATO allies would try to rein in any such action. Because of this Turkey might be more likely to extract something from its allies than the Russians in any threatened move to close the Straits.

  2. Scott,
    IMO, at present, Turkey is in a difficult position due to many factors, including:
    – geographically (next to Syria) and also as the Straits gatekeeper
    – Member of NATO, as well as, candidate to join EU
    – Continually back and forth regarding oil and natural gas transports
    from the Middle East and Europe.
    I agree with your assertion that closing the Straits to Russia is not practical at this point, given the many international and domestic issues but, as seen in the past, Turkey could flex such a threat to maintain her position as power-broker in the region.
    If Turkey was to go down this road, i’d be surprised if NATO attempted to step in, especially since they would then be implicitly going against the Montreux Convention and present an unsupportive image towards Turkey’s interests.
    What other policy objectives were you thinking about? Turkey is in such a central position that it seems, just about any issue is related to Maritime Security.

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