Democrats described as “chilling” the way Mr Trump set out his backing of Ankara’s violent creation of a “safe zone” in Syria, which was triggered by the president’s own actions.
“They had to have it cleaned out,” Mr Trump said of Turkey’s offensive to expel Kurdish fighters and their families from the area. Ankara launched its incursion against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) a week ago, days after the Republican announced he was withdrawing American troops from the area. The SDF had been US allies in the fight against Isis.
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Addressing reporters in Fort Worth, Texas, on Thursday, Mr Trump touted the agreement his administration had reached with Mr Erdogan, for a 120-hour pause allowing Kurds to retreat from where they had been living, as an “incredible outcome”.
He said: “On behalf of the United States, I want to thank Turkey, I want to thank all of the people that have gotten together and made this happen. This is an incredible outcome.
“So you have a 22-mile strip, that for many, many years, Turkey, in all fairness, they’ve had a legitimate problem with it, they had terrorists, they had a lot of people in their that they couldn’t have. They’ve suffered a lot of loss of lives also, and they had to have it cleaned out. But once you start that it gets to be to a point where a tremendous amount of bad things can happen.
“So, a process started and we started to negotiate, and I think that obviously the sanctions and tariffs were going to be very biting, I’m glad we don’t have to do it, we’ll be taking them off very quickly, as soon as this is finalised.
“But this is an incredible outcome, this outcome is something they’ve been trying to get for 10 years, everybody, and they couldn’t get it, other administrations, and they never would’ve been able to get it unless you went somewhat unconventional. I guess I’m an unconventional person. I took a lot of heat from a lot of people, even some of the people in my own party, but they were there, in the end, they were there.
“So we have a five-day ceasefire. During that five days the Kurds and other people, they’re going to be taken great care of, they’re going to be moving around, moving out of a safe zone, which is something that Turkey has always wanted. The Isis, they call them Daesh, but we call them Isis, the Isis fighters that we have captured, they’ll be under very, very strict control of various different groups, but we will be watching, we will be in charge.”
Mr Trump’s opponents seized on his use of language, after politicians of all stripes had condemned his initial decision to withdraw troops.
Tim Kaine, a Democratic senator from Virginia, said in a statement on his website: “[Mr Trump’s] explanation that ‘They had to have it cleaned out’ is chilling. I’ll have numerous questions for the administration about how they will protect against ethnic cleansing in the region.”
And Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the left-wing Democratic congresswoman with whom Mr Trump has carried on a bitter feud, tweeted: “The President of the United States is using the language of ethnic cleansing. If we allow him to continue, who would he use it on next?”
The president’s remarks came just hours before he held a rally in Dallas where he described Turkey’s invasion as like “two kids in a lot”. “Sometimes you have to let them fight,” he told supporters.
And despite the ceasefire, fighting continued in a key northeast Syrian border town on Friday. Shelling and gunfire could be heard around Ras al-Ayn as smoke rose from points near the border with Turkey and the Turkish town of Ceylanpinar.