THE "question of the Straits" has been the basis of Turkey's relations with the Powers for almost two centuries. The Ottoman Empire, founded in Anatolia in the fourteenth century, was carried into Europe by Suleiman, the son of the second Sultan. The point which Suleiman chose for crossing into Europe was the Dardanelles, the narrow strait about 40 miles long and between one-and-a-half and four miles wide which runs from the Sea of Marmora to the Aegean. Both banks of the Dardanelles have been in Turkish hands ever since. Having established themselves on European soil, the Turks took Adrianople and moved their capital there in 1367. Istanbul still continued for a century to be the capital of the rapidly declining Byzantine Empire; and through this period its conquest was the foremost aim of the Sultans. They realized their ambition in 1453, thus securing control of the Bosphorus, the strait 21 miles long and between half and one-and-a-half miles wide running from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmora.

In this manner the whole length of the waterway from the Black Sea to the Aegean came into Turkish hands. By the further conquest of the Crimea, on the northern shore of the Black Sea, the Turks a few years later made that sea into a Turkish lake, and it continued as such until the signing of the Treaty of Kainarji in 1774.

During these three centuries, from 1475 to 1774, the problem of the Straits did not exist and the Ottoman Empire established the rule of excluding all foreign ships from the "virgin waters" of the Black Sea.

It was not until Catherine II of Russia conquered and definitely took over the northern shores of the Black Sea that the Turkish monopoly of trade in that region was broken. This came about because the Ottoman Empire joined Poland in a war on Russia and suffered a crushing defeat. The Treaty of Kainarji, mentioned above, which put an end to that war, forced Turkey to recognize the independence of the Crimea. Actually, however, the Crimea became a Russian protectorate and was annexed by Catherine within a few years. Russia thereby established herself as a major Black Sea Power. By Article XI, the Black Sea not only was opened to trade, but Russia obtained the right of free passage through the Straits for her merchant shipping.

The date 1774 thus really marks the beginning of the "question of the Straits." Since then the Straits have been open to commercial ships, with restrictions in effect only when Turkey is herself at war.

But Catherine's ambitions were of a political as well as a trade nature. She wanted to conquer Istanbul, and with this in view she allied herself with Austria and started war against the Ottoman Empire.[i] While this war was going on, the French Revolution broke out and Austria withdrew. Catherine continued the struggle, however. England now entered the scene as a new and powerful factor. Since the Treaty of Kainarji, she had been watching the development of Russian designs on Turkey with deep anxiety, and when the Russo-Turkish war took a very unfavorable turn for the Ottoman Empire, Prime Minister Pitt intervened and prevailed upon Catherine to sign the Treaty of Jassy (1792), thus preventing the dismemberment of Turkey. England's interest in the question of the Straits dates from then.

After the Treaty of Jassy, other Powers were granted the privilege of passage through the Straits. But it was not until Napoleon's rise, and especially his expedition into Egypt in 1798, that there was any question as to the passage of warships. When Napoleon attacked Egypt, Turkey appealed to the Tsar and a Russian fleet entered the Bosphorus. England joined the alliance. Later English and Russian fleets continued to pass in and out of the Straits without regard for treaty stipulations. Then Russia, taking advantage of the situation, began to invade Turkey; and when the Ottoman Empire closed the Bosphorus to Russian ships and declared war on Russia, England, as an ally of Russia, sent her fleet up the Dardanelles and anchored before Istanbul. A few months later the situation was completely changed when Alexander signed the Treaty of Tilsit (July 1807) with Napoleon. This broke the Russian alliance with England and promised the French Emperor the Tsar's collaboration.

England thereupon signed with Turkey the Peace of the Dardanelles, a document having an important bearing on the subject of this article, since it mentions for the first time the closing of the Straits as being an ancient rule of the Ottoman Empire.

In the nineteenth century the Ottoman Empire began to decline rapidly. The ideals of nationality spread among the Sultan's subject races. When the Greeks revolted in 1821, Russia intervened to help them and Ottoman arms sustained a crushing defeat. By the Treaty of Adrianople (1829), Turkey not only recognized the independence of Greece but gave freedom to Russian commercial ships in all Turkish waters. Russian ships passing through the Straits were not to be searched. But although the language of this treaty was harsh, the terms in this respect nevertheless remained the same: that is to say, the Straits were to be open only to merchant ships. The question of opening the Straits to Russian warships did not come up until the development of a second crisis, which in a sense was another phase of the Greek War of Independence.

Mohamed Ali, Governor of Egypt, feeling that his services in the attempt to suppress the Greek revolt had not been remunerated, revolted against the Sultan and invaded Syria and Anatolia. His intention appeared to be to march on Istanbul, depose the Ottoman dynasty and proclaim himself Khalif and Sultan. Russia offered the Sultan help, and he reluctantly accepted it. A Russian force was landed at Unkiar Skelessi, near Beykoz, on the Asia Minor banks of the Bosphorus. The differences between Mohamed Ali and the Sultan were settled through the intervention of Great Britain and France, who were alarmed at seeing the Sultan throw himself into the arms of the Tsar. But Russia did not withdraw her troops from the Bosphorus before signing the Treaty of Unkiar Skelessi (1833), which opened a new phase in the question of the Straits. Unkiar Skelessi was a treaty of mutual assistance in which the Tsar and the Sultan promised to help each other in case of need. But there was a secret article which provided that instead of the help which the Sultan was to afford, he should open the Straits to Russian warships while keeping them closed to warships of other Powers.

The Treaty of Kainarji had opened the Straits to commercial ships; now, to suit the demands of the Tsar, the Sultan was abandoning his "ancient rule" of keeping the Straits closed to all warships. The reaction both in England and in France was so strong that the Tsar realized he could not maintain the provision, and a second revolt of Mohamed Ali provided the opportunity to change it. After the revolt had been crushed with the help of Great Britain, a Conference was held in London (1841) where the Treaty of Unkiar Skelessi was abrogated. The Straits were proclaimed as closed once more to foreign warships of all nations.

The important significance of this convention regarding the Straits was to translate what up to now had been "an ancient rule of the Sultan" into an international concern. During the ensuing century the question of the Straits has come up many times and several new conventions have been signed. However, the fundamental rule laid down in 1841 has remained the same.

No sooner was the Treaty of 1841 signed than Russia began to plan the partition of Turkey. These intrigues led to the Crimean War, in which Great Britain and France were involved as allies of the Ottoman Empire. After Russia's defeat, peace was signed in Paris in 1856. The significant stipulation of this treaty from the point of view of the Straits is that the Black Sea was neutralized, while its waters and its ports were thrown open to the mercantile marine of every nation. The Black Sea was "perpetually interdicted to the Flag of War, either of Powers possessing its coasts, or of any other Power."

This evidently was a provision which could not be maintained against Russia for very long. It continued, however, until the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Then Russia, taking advantage of the opportunity the war afforded, issued a note denouncing the provision. Great Britain protested that this unilateral denunciation could not change the situation, but in the end she consented to discuss the question in an international conference. This conference, held in London in 1871, abrogated the provisions of the 1856 treaty neutralizing the Black Sea; but it maintained the principle of the Treaty of 1841 with regard to closing the Straits to the passage of foreign warships -- with the proviso, however, that the Sultan could open the Straits in times of peace to war vessels of friendly powers.

The principles with regard to the régime of the Straits remained unchanged thereafter until the First World War. Russia's several attempts to alter them in her favor met with no success.

II

Some months after the beginning of the First World War, Turkey joined the Central Powers. Russia thereupon proposed to her allies, Britain and France, a "radical solution" which would fulfil the age-long Russian ambition to control the Straits. In a note to her hard-pressed allies, she claimed the outright annexation of Istanbul, both banks of the Bosphorus, the Sea of Marmora, the Dardanelles, the two islands of Imbros and Tenedos at the western entrance, and Thrace up to the Enos-Midia Line. They reluctantly conceded the Russian claims in March 1915. These claims lapsed, however, through Russia's desertion of the Allies towards the end of the war. The Bolsheviks who seized power in 1917 proclaimed themselves in favor of peace without annexations, and renounced all claim to Istanbul and the Straits, which, they said, should remain under Turkish sovereignty.

During the peace negotiations Turkey and Russia, both of them outcasts from the European system, found themselves collaborating. Bolshevik Russia had been attacked on all sides; Turkey, under Mustafa Kemal, was waging a war of independence. The régime set up by the Treaty of Sèvres, opening the Straits to merchant vessels and warships both in war and in peace, was never ratified by Turkey. Instead, the new Ankara Government entered into an agreement with the Russians in 1921 not to recognize any arrangement with regard to the Straits which did not recognize Turkey's sovereignty and safeguard the security of the Powers bordering on the Black Sea.

Because of this understanding Turkey insisted on the participation of Russia in the negotiations at Lausanne looking to the settlement of the Straits question. At Lausanne, both Russia and Britain took opposite views from those which they had held historically. Russia now insisted on closing the Straits to warships of all Powers, in peace and in war; while Britain insisted on full freedom of passage on a basis of equality for all Powers, whether or not non-riparian to the Black Sea. A final agreement compromising the two points was signed in Lausanne on July 24, 1923. It laid down the principle of the freedom of passage, thus completely changing the provisions of the Treaty of 1841 which had given international sanction to the "ancient rule" of the Porte to keep the Straits closed to warships of foreign powers. Provisions were accepted to safeguard the security of the Black Sea Powers.

The rules laid down at Lausanne with regard to the passage of merchant vessels and warships may be summarized as follows:

1. Merchant Vessels. Turkey being neutral, complete freedom of navigation in time of peace and in time of war. Turkey being belligerent, freedom of navigation for neutral vessels and nonmilitary aircraft, if these do not assist the enemy, e.g. by carrying contraband, troops to enemy nations.

2. Warships. (a) In time of peace. Freedom of passage, with the provision that no Power might send into the Black Sea a force larger than that of the most powerful fleet maintained in that sea by a littoral state. But the Powers reserved to themselves the right to send into the Black Sea at all times and under all circumstances a force of not more than three ships, of which no individual ship should exceed 10,000 tons. (b) In time of war, Turkey being neutral. The same rules and limitations applied with regard to neutral ships. (c) In time of war, Turkey being belligerent. Freedom of passage of neutral ships only, under the same rules and limitations.

To ensure execution of the above provisions, the Convention provided for the demilitarization of both banks of the Dardanelles and Bosphorus, the islands in the Sea of Marmora and the Greek and Turkish islands commanding the entrance to the Straits. An International Straits Commission was set up to supervise the freedom of passage and ensure proper application of the other provisions of the Convention.

Russia was not pleased with this result, and refused to ratify the treaty embodying the Convention. As for Turkey, so long as the collective security system of the League of Nations promised any hope of being successful, she did not raise the question of the remilitarization of the Straits. But the League began to weaken and the international situation as a whole deteriorated. Italy attacked Abyssinia, and Germany remilitarized the Rhine by unilateral action. In these circumstances the Turkish Government felt in a position to raise the question of the remilitarization of the Straits. Her action was received with approval and a conference was held at Montreux beginning June 22, 1936.

At Montreux, Turkey was in the difficult position of reconciling the views of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea Powers with her own interests and strategic considerations. The results of the Montreux Conference were as follows:

The demilitarization clauses of the Lausanne Convention were abrogated.

Freedom of passage for merchant vessels was maintained, but the right of transit of other than Black Sea Powers was further limited to a maximum aggregate tonnage of 30,000.

All transit of warships was to be preceded by a notification to the Turkish Government (Art. 13). Non-Black Sea Powers could send an aggregate of only 15,000 tons at one time into the Black Sea (Art. 14).

In time of war, Turkey being neutral, "vessels of war belonging to belligerent Powers shall not, however, pass through the Straits" except in the execution of obligations under the League Covenant and "in cases of assistance rendered to a state victim of aggression in virtue of a treaty of mutual assistance binding Turkey," concluded within the framework of the League (Art. 19).

In time of war, Turkey being a belligerent or considering herself threatened by imminent danger of war, the passage of warships was to be left to the discretion of the Turkish Government (Arts. 20 and 21).

Under Article 24, the functions of the International Straits Commission reverted to Turkey.

The result, although favorable to Russia, did not please the Soviet Government, and the friendship between the Soviet Union and Turkey began to cool. The Soviet press complained that Turkey was yielding to the pressure of the "imperialistic" Powers.

Differences between the democracies and the authoritarian Powers meanwhile deepened. Turkey, desiring peace, went with the democracies. After the annexation of Austria and Czechoslovakia, the relations of the democracies with the Axis Powers became still more strained. Great Britain began constituting a "peace front," in which, after consulting Russia, Turkey decided to join. Russia had held out hope that she would join herself. Consequently, in May 1939 Great Britain and Turkey issued a joint declaration and ultimately the two nations signed a treaty of alliance. The declaration was endorsed by an article in the Moscow paper Izvestia. The situation completely changed in August, however, when Russia, instead of joining the peace front, signed a treaty of friendship and non-aggression with Germany. The same Russian papers now began criticizing Turkey for having joined Great Britain and France. Molotov even went so far as to say that Turkey would some day repent this action.

Up till then, Turkey had been negotiating with the western Allies to form a barrier against aggression, in which Russia was slated to hold a key position. Despite Russia's treaty with Germany, she continued to discuss with Turkey a pact of non-aggression to stabilize the Black Sea balance. Indeed, Saracoglu, the Turkish Foreign Minister, went to Moscow in September 1939 in the belief that such a pact would be concluded. He was astonished to find there, however, that the Russians demanded as the price of the pact a unilateral reversal of the Montreux stipulations. Saracoglu flatly refused to discuss such a suggestion, which meant not only the unilateral violation of a freely-negotiated instrument, but the reversal of the policy on which Turkey and Russia had agreed three years before. The Turkish Foreign Minister left Moscow; and the Tripartite Treaty with Great Britain and France -- still containing an "escape clause" to save Turkey from the obligation of conflict with Russia -- was signed in Ankara.

Relations with the Soviets continued correct but cool in the period between the signing of the Tripartite Treaty and the Nazi attack on Russia on June 22, 1941. At the time of Stalingrad, the Russian press began to express dislike of Turkish policy during the war, and its criticisms became more pronounced as the prospects of victory for the Allies became brighter. Finally, the Treaty of Friendship and Neutrality, which had bound the two countries for twenty years, was denounced by Russia in March 1945. Turkey now became an object of slander and adverse propaganda, and the Soviet press began laying claim to the eastern provinces of Turkey and asking for bases on the Straits.

In denouncing the treaty, Russia gave the excuse that conditions had changed radically and that a new treaty more in conformity with the altered situation ought to be negotiated. When the Turkish Ambassador in Moscow inquired what changes might be required he was told bluntly that Russia wanted to alter the régime of the Straits so as to secure "effective guarantees," and also to annex the eastern provinces of Turkey. The claims with regard to the Straits, however, were not put on paper until August 7, 1946.

III

Meanwhile, when the three Great Powers met in Potsdam in the summer of 1945 Russia raised the question of revising the Straits Convention. It was agreed that the three Powers should get in contact with the Turkish Government -- an important decision, since it formally recognized the interest of the United States in the revision of the Convention.

In a note to the Turkish Government in November 1945, the United States suggested that action proceed on the basis of the following principles:

1. The Straits should be open to merchantmen of all nations in time of peace or war.

2. The Straits should in all circumstances be open to war vessels of the Black Sea Powers.

3. Passage through the Straits should be forbidden to war vessels belonging to other Powers, except with the consent of the Black Sea Powers or in the execution of a mission under the authority of the United Nations.

4. Certain changes should be introduced to bring the new Convention up to date, such as substituting the "United Nations Organization" for the "League of Nations," and eliminating Japan from among the signatory Powers.

The Turkish Government promptly answered that this suggested solution could be accepted as a basis for discussion, with certain conditions and reservations. There the matter rested until Russia presented her counter-proposition on August 7, 1946.

The Russian demand for the revision of the Montreux Convention was based on the claim that Turkey had not properly applied the provisions of that Convention with regard to Axis warships during the war. Four instances of Turkish neglect were alleged: (1) That Turkey on July 9, 1941, allowed a German craft named Seefalke to pass through the Straits to the Black Sea. (2) That in August 1941 an Italian "auxiliary ship" named Tarvisio passed through into the Black Sea. (3) That on November 4, 1942, the Soviet Ambassador in Ankara warned the Turkish Government that 140,000 tons of German shipping (auxiliary warships disguised as merchant ships) were about to pass through the Straits. (4) That in June 1944 the Soviet Ambassador in Ankara protested the passage, in May and June of that year, of eight ships of the "Ems" type and of five ships of the "Kriegs transport" type, from the Black Sea -- where they had been used for military purposes -- into the Aegean Sea.

The Russian note also put forward the following proposals:

1. The Straits should be open to merchantmen of all nations in time of peace or war.

2. The Straits should be open in all circumstances to war vessels of the Black Sea Powers.

3. Except in special cases, the passage of war vessels belonging to non-Black Sea Powers should be forbidden.

4. The power to formulate the régime of the Straits should be left to Turkey and the Black Sea Powers.

5. The Straits should be defended by the "common means" of Turkey and the Soviet Union.

The Turkish Government in a note of August 22, 1946, categorically denied the Russian allegation that Turkey had allowed the Axis Powers to use the Straits against the Allies, or that the passage of a few small ships was contrary to the provisions of the Montreux Convention. These ships, being of less than 100 tons, were not covered by the Annex, and anyway were not warships but vessels of commerce.

It seems that the Seefalke, a 37-ton motorboat, unarmed, appeared at the Straits on July 6, 1941, and asked permission to go through to Constanza. As she did not come under the description of a warship as defined by Annex II of the Convention, she was allowed to pass. The Tarvisio, an Italian ship, unarmed, was allowed to pass in June 1941; but when it was discovered that she had once been registered as an auxiliary warship, and subsequently deleted from the list, she was refused permission to pass a second time when she appeared at the Dardanelles on August 9, 1941. On August 25, 1941, the Soviet Government expressed its thanks for the decisions taken with regard to the Tarvisio.

The Soviet warning in October 1942 to the effect that 140,000 tons of German shipping intended for use in the prosecution of the war were to pass through the Straits never had any sequel. In fact, no German commercial vessels passed through the Straits during November and December of that year; and the aggregate of German commercial shipping which passed through the Straits from January 1943 to January 1944 amounted to only 19,476 tons.

With regard to the passage of "Ems" and "Kriegs transport" types of ships, these did not come under the description of warships as defined in Annex II of the Convention. They belonged to private German shipping companies and carried coal and timber. But when the British Government, on very reliable information, drew the attention of the Turkish Government to the fact that some of these ships had been used as auxiliary vessels and for transporting troops, the Turkish Government immediately prohibited their passage.

After answering these Russian allegations in detail, the Turkish note proceeded to examine the five points proposed for a new régime for the Straits. It accepted the first three points as a basis for discussion, these being, in fact, similar to the first three points in the American note.

The Turkish note, however, refused the fourth and fifth points. It pointed out that the Montreux Conference is valid until 1956 and that it had been negotiated and signed by the Black Sea as well as the non-Black Sea Powers. To exclude the non-riparian Powers from the negotiations for its amendment would upset the broad basis and general harmony of the régime. The interests of the non-riparian Powers could not be overlooked. As for the proposition that there be a common defense of the Straits, this obviously was unacceptable, since it would limit Turkish sovereignty on the Straits and, on the pretext of giving further security to the Black Sea Powers, would upset the balance of the whole security scheme.

After a month of study, the Soviet Government answered in a second note delivered September 24, 1946. It reiterates the same allegations with regard to Turkey's application of the Montreux Convention during the war, expressed satisfaction at the acceptance of the first three points "in principle," and insists on the next two points. It explains at length why the régime of the Straits should be set up by negotiations between the Black Sea Powers and Turkey alone, pointing out the paramount interests of these Powers and insisting on the exclusion of outsiders. There is an expression of resentment that Turkey refused the fifth point, regarding the common defense of the Straits, before even inquiring as to the meaning of this proposition, and an insistence that only by "bringing together the common means" can the Straits be adequately defended.

The Soviet note does not refuse the idea of an international conference on the Straits, but suggests that the question be discussed as "widely as possible" between Turkey and the Soviet Union before the conference is held. Here, as these lines are written, the matter rests.

IV

To comprehend "the question of the Straits" one must remember that it has two phases: commercial and strategic. The first presents no difficulty. In fact, there is no difference of opinion on this point between Turkey and either the riparian or non-riparian Powers. The Straits should be kept open to ships of commerce without any restriction, in time of peace or in time of war. This has always been the accepted rule for the régime of the Straits.

In considering the much more complicated strategic phase, one must keep in mind that since the development of modern implements of warfare the zone of the Straits has become much enlarged and now extends as far as the island of Crete in the Aegean Sea. By occupying Crete and the Aegean islands Germany effectively closed the Straits to the passage of Allied ships during the recent war. This probably explains Russia's deep interest in Greece.

The Straits present a triangular question, in which the strategic exigencies of the Black Sea Powers, of the other Powers and of Turkey must all be met. The Montreux Convention provided a balance between these three sets of interests, in so far as that was possible in 1936; and it still seems the arrangement best suited to the requirements of today. Any upset in this balance would involve the Powers in a war.

Under the Montreux Convention, the Straits are open to warships of Black Sea Powers in time of peace, but not to warships of non-riparian Powers. This adequately safeguards the security of the Black Sea Powers, since the aggregate tonnage of other Powers allowed to pass through the Straits into the Black Sea is lower than that of the riparian Powers.

In case of war, the passage of warships of belligerent Powers is prohibited while Turkey is neutral. Only by this provision can Turkey protect herself from being involved in the war, because to allow passage through the Straits to the warships of both riparian and non-riparian Powers would inevitably result in the Straits becoming the field of active operation. To allow passage only to the Black Sea Powers, and to deny this right to non-riparian Powers, would mean that the ships of Black Sea Powers, passing through the Straits, could engage an enemy fleet and then retire into the Dardanelles, soliciting the protection of neutral Turkey against pursuit by their enemies. Here again Turkey would be involved in a war.

In any case, so long as Turkey is neutral and guards the entrance into the Black Sea, the riparian Powers are adequately protected, as the Second World War showed. The passage of warships of riparian Powers in that case would not be for defensive but for offensive purposes.

Despite Russia's complaint, the fact remains that the Montreux régime helped Russia during this last war, for it prevented the Italian fleet from entering the Black Sea. If it had been allowed to do so, the Axis Powers would have gained control of the Black Sea and greatly facilitated their task in the east.

The Russian demand for a "common defense of the Straits" is generally interpreted to mean the establishment of Russian bases on the Straits. That would be the equivalent of handing the Straits over to the Russians. The European part of Turkey would be separated from Anatolia and the country's own sea communications would be severed. If one bears in mind that Turkey is a peninsular Power, depending on sea routes for her domestic communications, one can realize what this would mean. In case of war, she would be deprived of the use of either the Black Sea or the Mediterranean, depending on whether her enemy was in the north or in the Mediterranean. She would be reduced to the position of a Russian satellite.

Furthermore, the Russian scheme would completely upset the balance between the great land power in the north and the great sea power in the south. For it must be remembered that if the Straits can be a bulwark of defense, they can also be a strong base for offense. With Russia on the Straits, Eastern Mediterranean Powers would be at her mercy. If Russia is herself anxious for her own safety against dangers threatening from the Mediterranean, the Mediterranean Powers must likewise be equally anxious for their own safety against dangers threatening from the Black Sea. The Montreux régime provides this safety to both. In principle, therefore, it is an ideal system, safeguarding the interests and strategic exigencies of all three parties: the riparian Powers, the non-riparian Powers, and Turkey. It is the best system that can be devised for safeguarding peace in this part of the world.

The experience of the last ten years has shown that some details of the Convention which set up such an admirable system may require modification. This should be the task of the coming conference. But no attempt should be made to change the essential structure of an edifice which has stood the test of the greatest crisis in the world's history.

[i] Cf. "Turkey at the Straits," by James T. Shotwell and Francis Deák. New York: Macmillan, 1940.

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  • AHMED SÜKRÜ ESMER, Foreign Editor of Ulus, Ankara; member of the Turkish Parliament, 1939-1946, and of the Turkish Delegation to the United Nations General Assembly, 1946
  • More By Ahmed Sükrü Esmer