What are the odds that Russian pranksters would deceive Sen. Lindsey Graham into having a faux phone conversation with an ersatz Turkish defense minister only weeks before Turkey became an international pariah for its offensive against the formerly US-backed Kurdish forces in Syria? Believe it or not, in this case, the odds are 100 percent because, in another case of truth being stranger than satire, it happened.
Politico reports that Alexey Stolyarov and Vladimir Kuznetsov, two Russian hoaxers with suspected ties to Russian intelligence succeeded in getting Sen. Graham on the phone back in August, not once but twice. The pair, who go by the names “Lexus and Vovan,” convinced Graham that he was speaking to Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar. The duo’s call might have gone unnoticed except for the inconsistencies in their conversations with Graham and his public statements since the White House agreed to pave the way for the Turkish offensive by removing US troops.
Where Graham has been very critical of President Trump’s treatment of our Kurdish allies and calling for congressional action to sanction Turkey, the senator’s private comments to the fake Turkish minister conveyed a different message.
In the call, Graham called to the Kurds as a “threat” and expressed sympathy for Turkey’s “Kurdish problem.” Graham referred to Kurdish military units that had been allied with the US in the fight against ISIS, saying, “Your YPG Kurdish problem is a big problem.” Turkey has labeled the Kurdish fighters terrorists because they want a separate Kurdish state.
“I told President Trump that Obama made a huge mistake in relying on the YPG Kurds,” Graham continued. “Everything I worried about has come true, and now we have to make sure Turkey is protected from this threat in Syria. I’m sympathetic to the YPG problem, and so is the president, quite frankly.”
President Trump expressed similar sentiments this week, telling reporters, “If you read today — a couple of reports saying that when President Obama started this whole thing. As you know, it was started by President Obama; he created a natural war with Turkey and their longtime enemy, PKK. And they’re still there.”
The PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, is a separate marxist Kurdish group that has been fighting a separatist war against the Turkish government since 1984. Both Turkey and the US consider the PKK a terrorist group.
In the second call, Graham also referred to the “Turkish bank” case of Reza Zarrab, a Turkish-Iranian businessman arrested in 2016 for helping Iran to violate sanctions. Zarrab’s release has been a high priority for Turkish president Erdogan. It was reported this week that President Trump pressured then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to interfere with the DOJ case on Zarrab’s behalf in 2017. Zarrab was convicted in 2018 and sentenced to 32 months in prison. Zarrab was also a client of Rudy Giuliani, President Trump’s personal attorney.
“And this case involving the Turkish bank, he’s very sensitive to that,” Graham said of Trump during the prank call. “The president wants to be helpful, within the limits of his power.”
“We want a better relationship with Turkey. That’s exactly what he [Trump] wants,” Graham said, also asking that Turkey rethink the NATO ally’s purchase of the S-400 anti-aircraft missile system from Russia. Graham also discussed getting Turkey added back as a customer of the US F-35 fighter aircraft program. Turkey was dropped as an F-35 customer in July after it accepted the Russian missile system.
A spokesman for Graham confirmed that the recording of the call was genuine, saying that it “slipped through the cracks” and “they got him.”
“It’s no secret Senator Graham has often traveled to Turkey and continued to speak with many members of Turkish government, including President Erdogan, about the relationship between our two countries," Graham spokesman Kevin Bishop added. "He has been clear he wants a stronger relationship and often talked about the importance of maintaining peace in northern Syria to prevent the reemergence of ISIS.”
"With Turkey’s invasion into northern Syria the drive for better relations between our two countries has suffered a body blow,” Bishop said. “Turkey should immediately withdraw their military forces and America should reinstitute the safe zone concept to keep the peace in the region. Until this is done, Senator Graham will continue to push for severe, biting sanctions against Turkey."
While I applaud Sen. Graham’s tough words to Turkey following Trump’s ill-considered retreat, I am concerned that Graham may have encouraged both Trump’s withdrawal and Turkey’s offensive by acknowledging that the Kurds represented a threat to Turkey. As to the discussion of Reza Zarrab, that seems very swampy.
Originally published on The Resurgent