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A protester holds a flag depicting jailed Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan as a van burns during clashes at the Taksim Square in Istanbul Tuesday, June 11, 2013.  (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

A protester holds a flag depicting jailed Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan as a van burns during clashes at the Taksim Square in Istanbul Tuesday, June 11, 2013. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

There’s been much focus on religious-motivated violence by Al Qaeda-linked groups, Jabhat al-Nusra and others in Syria, and rightly so. However, other elements deserve consideration to offer a fuller understanding of the Syrian conflict.

Over the past four decades, the Assad regime, under Hafez and later Bashar Al-Assad, has sought to establish ties with destructive outside elements with interests dovetailing with its own. Its activities in Lebanon and Iraq after the March 2003 invasion are well known. Hafez also sheltered the PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan for almost two decades until the threat of all-out war by Ankara in 1998 forced Damascus to make Öcalan leave the country.

Today, with the most serious threat to the family’s forty-year rule at its door, it seems Assad the junior has sought to reignite similar tensions; not with Kurdish elements, but with leftist Turkish terrorists irate with the Turkish authorities. Turkey has a long history of producing leftist-Marxist militants. The 1960s and 70s saw the emergence of violent groups such as the Turkish People’s Liberation Front, the Revolutionary Left and the Hatay Liberation Army which sought to return the province of Hatay to Syria. Since the 1990s, such groups had been largely dormant—until violence broke out in Syria in 2011.

Having seen Kurdish elements finally move against the regime earlier this year, Damascus has sought out other Turkey-linked groups to work with its security forces. The best-known Turkish figure operating inside Syria today is Mihrac Ural, an Alawite Turkish national who fled Turkey for Syria in 1980. He was supported by Hafez al-Assad and is believed to have been given Syrian citizenship.

In recent months Ural established an Alawite militia called the “Syrian Resistance,” operating in western Syrian provinces. He was reportedly last seen at the funeral of the outspoken Lebanese Assad supporter, Mohammad Jammo, in Latakia earlier this month. However, Ural is better known for comments he is said to have made claiming the coastal Syrian city of Banias to be the only route for forces opposing the regime to access the coast. Ural is said to have remarked of “cleansing” Banias of such groups. Shortly after these comments became public, over 400 civilians were slaughtered by pro-Assad militias in the towns of Bayda and Ras al-Nebeh in Banias province in one of the worst massacres of the Syrian conflict. Ural is believed to have been involved.

One consequence of Ural plundering across western Syria and appearing with Alawite clerics in video footage is to draw sympathy and support from the 400,000 Alawite Arabs living in the Turkish province of Hatay, where civilians largely support the continuation of Bashar al-Assad’s rule in Syria. Ural and Syrian security forces are also thought to have had a hand in Turkey’s worst ever terrorist attack in May.The double car bombing in the border town of Reyhanli on May 11 was one of the deadliest attacks on a NATO member in a decade. It also appears a textbook Assad move designed to instill anger and disillusion among Turks as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan increases Turkey’s support for rebels and the Syrian opposition.

The predominantly Alawite towns in southern Hatay and northern Latakia province in Syria are a conduit for Assad militias to move weapons, fighters and bombs to and from Turkey. Deadly bombings in the latter country serve as a welcome distraction for Damascus and figures like Ural add to the sectarian dimension. Jihadist groups in eastern and northern Syria are clearly a threat to regional stability, but are by no means the only concern.

Stephen Starr

Stephen Starr

Stephen Starr is the author of ‘Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising.’ Now based in Turkey, he lived in Syria for five years until 2012.

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