Diminishing Vessel Traffic via The Turkish Straits: Convergence or Conflict of Interests?

Duygu Uckun*

Recently Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) has taken an initiative to encourage crude oil transport via the projected Samsun – Ceyhan oil pipeline, instead of the overcrowded Turkish Straits, Istanbul and Canakkale (Dardanelle).

If Turkey plays its cards correctly, canalling the traffic to the pipeline could prove to be a win-win situation for both parties. However, if Turkey overestimates its authority on the Straits, well, the issue could turn into a showdown causing Turkey to lose its diplomatic influence on the Straits simply by demanding too much and not getting it.

Turkey’s MFA has taken an initiative to support Samsun-Ceyhan pipeline project, especially to promote it as an alternative to Turkish Straits. Turkish metropol Istanbul is founded on both sides of the Bosphorus. On average 28 tankers per day proceeded through the strait in 2005. The argument is simple: Istanbul cannot afford an environmental and/or humanitarian catastrophe, and in case of such an accident not only Istanbulites but also the companies in the extractive sector would lose, for not delivering on time and keeping idle ships stranded in the Black Sea. This, obviously, is a lose-lose situation.


Two international agreements regarding Turkish Straits, are relevant to MFA’s argument. First is the Montreaux Convention. Turkish Straits are regulated with Montreux Convention since 1936. The Convention is signed by multiple parties, among which are the UK, France and USSR; and it guarantees free pas-sage of civilian vessels in peacetime but has restrictions on armed vessels. Second is the “voluntary principles” document signed in 2000 by the companies such as Chevron, Texaco, Conoco, Shell and BP, as well as governments of the United States and Britain.

Montreaux Convention prevents Turkey from having direct political influence on the Straits. Article 2 of Montreaux Convention (1936) states, “in time of peace, merchant vessels shall enjoy complete freedom of passage and navigation in the Straits, by day and by night, under any flag with any kind of cargo.” The Convention does not obligate signatory countries to provide protection for well-being or environmental protection of citizens. One, however, can argue that secure navigation is a crucial element of the Convention, therefore Turkey has the right to regulate therefore control navigation through the Straits. But such an argument would only be acceptable coming from an influential player in the region.

The second document is a 2000 dated “voluntary principles”, signed by companies in the contractive industry, governments such as the US and the UK as well as NGOs . The document includes phrases such as: “Companies recognize a commitment to act in a manner consistent with the laws of the countries within which they are present, to be mindful of the highest applicable international standards, and to promote the observance of applicable international law enforcement principles (e.g., the U.N. Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials and the U.N. Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials),”

“Taking into account the increasing petroleum production in Russia and Caspian region number of tankers passing by Istanbul and Canakkale Straits, increasing the risk of an accident, or harm to the environment. “ 

And “Although governments have the primary role of maintaining law and order, security and respect for human rights, Companies have an interest in ensuring that actions taken by governments, particularly the actions of public security providers, are consistent with the protection and promotion of human rights. In cases where there is a need to supplement security provided by host governments, Companies may be required or expected to contribute to, or otherwise reimburse, the costs of protecting Company facilities and personnel borne by public security. While public security is expected to act in a manner consistent with local and national laws as well as with human rights standards and international humanitarian law, within this context abuses may nevertheless occur.”

These are favourable clauses in terms of Turkey’s arguments, nevertheless, they are nothing more than sign of good will on part of the governments, and a show of corporate social responsibility on part of the companies. Enforcing these could only be possible if carried out by an influential actor, as said earlier. This actor could be Russia, that is on the supply side of the energy route, or a military superpower such as the US. Turkey, merely by using its geographical location and “risking civilian lives” argument, can only go so far. The international energy market’s demand for energy is gradually increasing, giant companies and supplier countries are too big to confront with this weak argument. So once again, it all lies in the economics, supported with careful diplomacy.

Therefore my advice to the MFA is to work out the numbers, probably with the help of the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources, as well as BOTAŞ to make Samsun Ceyhan an economically profitable option.
According to statistics retrieved from the Undersecretariat for Maritime Affairs, the number of tankers that pass through Istanbul Strait in 2009 was 9,299;. 866 of which was LPG-LNG tankers and 1,876 were TCHs, carrying chemical products. We don’t know how much of the remaining are crude oil tankers, because the Undersecretariat’s statistics are not published to reveal that information. According to Necdet Pamir, an energy expert at Centre of Eurasian Strategic Research (ASAM,) 3 million barrels of petroleum pass through the Straits per day. This is expected to reach 4 million in 2010. Taking into account the increasing petroleum production in “Turkey’s best strategy is to make the pipeline cheaper than the Straits option…” Russia and Caspian region number of tankers passing by Istanbul and Canakkale Straits, increasing the risk of an accident, or harm to the environment.

The Turkish Straits Vessel Traffic Service (TSVTS) provides a detailed view of the Straits’ geographical features. Straits are very narrow, and are flowed by strong and complex currents. The width is 698 meters at some points in the Istanbul Strait. Also it is full of sharp turns and necks. In short, it is a risky and costly ride. Heavy traffic and adverse weather conditions cause the ships to wait in Black Sea for days at times. The cost of hiring a guide, or risking an accident (plus fines) without a guide are all costs the shipowners have to take into account. What makes a pipeline a better option? First of all it allows a continuous flow. Secondly, scheduling deployments would be much easier, and lastly, costs would go down especially in terms of insurance costs. If loading and unloading becomes financially less costly, the market would favour the pipeline, therefore pick the crude from Ceyhan port, and reach
international markets. These costs could be brought down by cheap work force, and all kinds of fees at Samsun and Ceyhan ports.
To sum up, Turkey’s best strategy is to make the pipeline cheaper than the Straits option (that includes waiting time, and tonnage limitations, guidance fees). Just pointing out at the humane costs of a possible accident won’t do it for the big companies. At the end politics can go so far. By doing this, in addition to saving Istanbul – the heart of Turkish economyfrom a tanker accident, Turkey can add to its most favoured “energy hub” position yet another pipeline, namely the Samsun Ceyhan.

Duygu Uckun is a Graduated MIA Student from Columbia University.
1  h t t p : / / w w w . r e f e r a n s g a z e t e s i . c om/ h a b e r . a s p x ? HBR_KOD=136682&KTG_KOD=480
2  http://www.voluntaryprinciples.org/ principles/introduction
3  h t t p : / / w w w . h u r r i y e t . c o m . t r / strateji/6283746.asp?gid=202
4 h t t p : / / w w w . a f c a n . o r g / dossiers_techniques/tsvts_gb.html


  •  Gursoy, Begum. Petrolde boru hatti için gonulluluk esas. Referans Gazetesi, 11/02/2010.
  • Pamir, Necdet. Boru Hatti Satrancinda Coban Mati Olmayalim da… Hurriyet Strateji, 10/05/2007.
  • The Turkish Straits Vessel Traffic Service (TSVTS) . Retrieved from: http:// www.afcan.org/dossiers_techniques/ tsvts_gb.html
  •  The Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights. Retrieved from: http:// www.voluntaryprinciples.org/
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