WASHINGTON - Fighting reportedly intensified between Turkish-backed Syrian fighters and U.S.-backed Kurdish forces Sunday over a major highway and a strategic town in northeastern Syria.
Local news reported that Turkish military and allied Syrian militias continued shelling positions belonging to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in a bid to control the town of Tal Tamr and the nearby M4 highway.
In an effort to prevent Turkish-backed forces from advancing into the town, the SDF has reportedly reached a cease-fire deal with Russia, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Sunday.
The deal, according to the war monitor, would allow Russian and Syrian government troops to be deployed near the Christian-majority Tal Tamr and parts of the M4 highway, locally known as the "International Road."
“Our sources on the ground have confirmed the agreement between the SDF and Russia,” Rami Abdulrahman, director of the Syrian Observatory, told VOA.
He added that some areas outside the town have been handed over to the Turkish military, while Russian and Syrian government troops have taken control of the International Road.
‘No deal yet’
But SDF officials denied these reports, saying that no cease-fire has been reached as Turkish forces and their Syrian allies continued their attacks.
“We are aware of the rumors that M4 highway and Tal Tamr will be handed over to Syrian Army as part of a deal. There is no truth to these reports. In contrast, fierce attacks by Turkish-backed armed groups continue in that area,” Mustafa Bali, an SDF spokesperson, said in a tweet Sunday.
Ekrem Salih, a local reporter covering the ongoing developments, said violent clashes took place outside Tal Tamr.
“I was in the town this afternoon. There was fierce fighting in several villages outside the town. But Tal Tamr itself witnessed no fighting and it is still under SDF control,” he told VOA.
The 500-kilometer M4 highway, which stretches from the northern Syrian city of Aleppo in the west to the Iraqi border in the east, represents a strategic significance for all warring sides, experts said.
“This is a very strategic road in northern Syria,” Abdulrahman said. “If Turkey and its allies took control of this highway, the entire northern region of Syria will be cut off from the rest of northeast Syria.”
He added, “Turkey wants to make sure that Kurdish-held areas are not geographically connected.”
Turkey has been carrying out a military offensive since early October against U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish forces that Ankara views as terrorists.
The operation came days after U.S. President Donald Trump announced the withdrawel of U.S. troop from several border areas in Syria, where they were stationed as part of the U.S.-led war against the Islamic State (IS) terror group.
The Turkish offensive has displaced more than 180,000 Syrian civilians in the border region, according to the U.N.
Turkey defends its offensive and maintains that it has sent troops to northeast Syria to clear the region from People's Protection Units also known as YPG, the main fighting force within the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Turkey accuses the group of being an offshoot of the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK), a U.S.-designated terror group.
Washington differs with Ankara over the classification of YPG as a terror group and views the SDF as an ally against IS.