Donald Trump said his withdrawal of US troops from north-east Syria had created a “strategically brilliant” outcome, as Mike Pence, vice-president, prepared to fly to Ankara to persuade Turkey to halt its military incursion into Syria.
Mr Trump’s comments came as Turkey continued the military operation it launched a week ago, just days after the US president appeared to give his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a green light to launch a campaign against Kurdish forces who had been helping the US fight Isis.
“I view the situation on the Turkish border with Syria to be, for the United States, strategically brilliant. Our soldiers are out of there. Our soldiers are totally safe,” Mr Trump said, as he welcomed Sergio Mattarella, Italian president, to the White House on Wednesday.
The White House has spent the past week attempting to repair the damage Mr Trump has done, as the president came under widespread domestic criticism from Democrats and Republicans who believe that he has made one of the biggest foreign policy blunders of his presidency.
US officials have argued that Turkey, a fellow member of the Nato military alliance, was intent on the operation against Kurdish forces in Syria, which it views as terrorists, and was not responsive to US pressure. They have argued that Mr Trump took a prudent decision to remove US troops to ensure they would not be caught in the conflict in north-east Syria.
“Do people want us to start shooting at a Nato member? That would be a first,” Mr Trump said from the Oval Office.
Mr Pence will depart Washington on Wednesday evening as the head of a high-level delegation to Ankara in a bid to persuade Mr Erdogan to agree a ceasefire. He will be joined by Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, and Robert O’Brien, the US national security adviser, who was set to arrive in Turkey on Wednesday.
“We need them to stand down, we need a ceasefire, at which point we can begin to put this all back together again,” Mr Pompeo told Fox News.
Mr Pompeo stressed that the US had put sanctions on Turkish officials this week in an effort to convince Mr Erdogan to reverse course, but said the US wanted to preserve relations with Ankara.
“Our goal here isn’t to break the relationship with Turkey. They are a member of Nato. We have important security interests connected to Turkey,” Mr Pompeo told the television network. “Our goal . . . is to deny Turkey the capacity to continue to engage in this behaviour.”
US military officials have expressed frustration at the move by Mr Trump, which experts warn could undo efforts to defeat Isis.
Republicans have also been critical of the president for abandoning the Kurdish forces in Syria who have taken huge casualties in recent years leading the campaign against Isis jihadis.
On Wednesday, Mr Trump said Syria was now protecting the Kurds — in a recognition that Kurdish fighters had been forced to create an alliance with Damascus after they were abandoned by the US. Russian forces have also moved into the vacuum created when US special forces last week abruptly abandoned their bases on Mr Trump’s order.
“Syria is protecting the Kurds. That is good,” Mr Trump said, before later adding that the Kurds “were not angels” — a comment that is likely to spark condemnation from Republicans.
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi