At the request of President Donald Trump, a senior U.S. senator telephoned Turkey’s foreign minister this week to ask him leave the S-400 defense systems Turkey just bought from Russia unplugged, unused, and unactivated.
As a carrot in their Wednesday phone conversation, Lindsey Graham said the U.S. is willing to "start free trade negotiations" if Turkey does not activate the S-400, he told Katie Bo Williams of Defense One, who reported the story.
Since 2017, Turkey and the U.S. have been at odds over Turkey's decision to buy the S-400, a Russian-made missile defense system, and U.S. threats to break its contract to sell Turkey F-35 fighter jets over the dispute.
“I’m in the camp of, if they don’t activate the S-400, the sanctions don’t have to be applied. My hope is to persuade Turkey not to active the system because it’s so disruptive to the relationship,” Graham told the website.
“My pitch to Turkey was, let’s stand down on the S-400, let’s start free trade agreement negotiations.”
Graham went on to say that if Turkey turns on the advanced air defense system, the U.S. relationship with Turkey will take “a very dark turn.”
Turkey’s Foreign Ministry has not confirmed that Graham spoke with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu or what they might have discussed.
US said to seek ‘win-win’
Graham went public with his messages to Turkey on Twitter around the same time Defense One posted an interview with the senator.
Graham said the U.S. and Turkey "must find a way to avoid the damage to the relationship that comes from Turkey activating the S-400 missile system.”
"When it comes to Turkey, we are looking for a Win-Win, not a Lose-Lose," Graham wrote on Twitter.
If Graham’s trial balloon offer is genuine, it would be unprecedented, with the Trump administration offering to start free trade talks with Turkey so long as the S-400s do not go operational.
"It is my hope that we can have a stronger relationship with our allies in Turkey by discussing and negotiating a Free Trade Agreement," said Graham, taking a more conciliatory tone than in his recent rhetoric.
"This will integrate our economies and be a Win-Win for both nations."
To defend its airspace, Turkey has long sought to purchase U.S.-made Patriot missiles, but Washington rebuffed Turkey’s overtures, spurning its longtime ally's national interests.
Despite U.S. officials’ threats to take action if Turkey does not abandon the S-400s, Turkish officials have described the transaction as a "done deal."
The U.S. has threatened sanctions over the purchase, with Turkey responding that any sanctions would be met in kind.
The ongoing delivery of S-400 components began last week and is set to continue through April 2020.
Trump says Turkey not to blame, pushes back on sanctions
Repeatedly blaming the Obama administration and Democrats for the ongoing S-400-F35 tension between the two NATO allies, Trump has repeatedly said that the current "mess" is "not Turkey's or Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's fault."
"Obama administration said no, no, no to Turkey when they wanted to purchase Patriots and they [Turkey] bought S-400," Trump said at the G20 summit in Japan last month, absolving Turkey for the ongoing tension.
On Tuesday, he invited GOP senators to the White House and reportedly reiterated his intention to not impose any sanctions to Turkey.