Friday, 28 December 2018

Syrian opposition reacts to US withdrawal

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 'On Dec. 19, U.S. officials stated that the Pentagon had an order to move troops out of Syria as quickly as possible. Later on, they started to inform their partners in northeastern Syria about their plans regarding the immediate pullback of American forces from the region, where they have been trying to wrap up the campaign against Daesh. This surprising decision by the Donald Trump administration not only has the potential to change the dynamics of Syria, but also has the capacity to change the position of the Syrian opposition. In this regard, the Syrian opposition took the U.S.' decision to withdraw with a grain of salt at first. However, the follow-up tweets of Trump and the events following the declaration caused euphoria among the Syrian opposition as they hope to seize control of all the People's Protection Units-held (YPG) territories in Syria.

 The decision by the Trump administration makes the opposition believe in a new process in Syria where they will strengthen their position as Yusuf Hamoud, the spokesman of the Turkey-trained National Army, claimed: "We, as the National Army, alongside the Turkish army, consider us the biggest gainers of this decision, and we will move the battle east of the Euphrates soon to liberate the region from terrorist gangs such as [the Democratic Union Party] PYD."

 Hamoud also stated that: "We read Trump's decision as political diplomacy, and Turkish politicians are able to achieve understanding of American aims on the Syrian issue. So we consider this decision as a partial withdrawal from the northern part of the Syrian-Turkish border area toward the Syrian depth region."

 Also the former spokesman of the National Army, Abu Riyad Hamadin, formulated his skepticism by questioning the U.S. withdrawal; whether they will withdraw entirely from Syria or only from the region located in the Syrian-Turkish border. To this end, they will be able to prevent direct confrontation with Turkey by opening up a way for Turkey and the National Army to launch a military operation against the YPG.

 Later on Dec. 24, Hamadin expressed that all of the territories currently held by the YPG will be controlled by the National Army together with the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) without the interference of any other, so the U.S. presence in Syria will be handed over to the TSK.

 Explaining the reasons behind the U.S. decision to withdraw, the spokesman alleged that the establishment of the National Army in clear coordination with the Turkish political and military leadership, will strengthen the position of Turkey on the political level.

 Also Muhammed Bassoun, a commander of Liwa al-Shamal, a faction belonging to the National Army, talked about his expectations that the most of Syria's north will come under the Turkish umbrella until the formulation of final political solution in Syria in which Iran will "pack their belongings and leave Syria."

 In this regard, according to Hamoud, the Syrian opposition has always demanded that foreign forces should leave Syria.

 As the declaration of the U.S. withdrawal was first skeptically received by the Syrian opposition, Wael Alwan, the spokesman of Faylaq al-Rahman, a faction which was located in eastern Ghouta previously but had to be evacuated to northern Syria after the Russian-backed regime military assault, said on the day of the declaration: "American promises cannot be trusted as the withdrawal declaration is likely to be similar to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's previous withdrawal declaration of the Russian troops from Syria, which was made for media consumption and was not implemented on the ground." On the other side, Alwan furthered that: "Through the statements of Trump and the political battle within the U.S. administration, it is expected that the American declaration is serious and will be implemented, unlike the other examples, such as Putin's announcement."

 At the beginning, Othman Millo, the chief of the Istanbul office of the Kurdish National Council, said the U.S. withdrawal decision was made to pressure the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to accept other actors' participation in the administration, to ease Turkey's security concerns and to dismantle the administrative system of the YPG.

 In this regard, the YPG rejected the deployment of Syrian peshmerga in the border region with Turkey. But later on, Millo's view evolved as he said he fears Russia and Iran will fill the void of a U.S. withdrawal, but he also pointed out that the U.S. presence inside Syria had negative aspects as well, like negatively affecting Turkey, who bravely stands with the Syrian people. Millo criticized that the U.S.' presence in Syria had no clear and supportive vision for the Syrian people and the Syrian revolution.

 Alwan's words sum up the reaction of the Syrian opposition: "Indeed, the decision announced by the American president is very important and surprising to all, because it is contrary to previous U.S. statements as they stated that the U.S. forces will stay in northeastern Syria."

 Dima Moussa, the vice president of the Syrian National Council, focused on the political impact of the U.S. withdrawal and said: "Generally, anything that would contribute to ensuring minimal U.S.-Turkey tension will likely have positive effects on Turkey's position in support of the opposition and in the Astana process, which would also have a positive effect on advancing the Syrian political process."

 All of this, of course, depends on the details of the withdrawal and the level of coordination with the Syrian opposition represented by the Syrian National Coalition and of course coordination with the Turkish side. I personally see this move as a tactical move as opposed to strategic; I think that the U.S. may pull out military personnel so that they will not have boots on the ground. However, it is unlikely that they will completely leave the area. We have seen this scenario several times in different areas of the multiple regions.'

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Thursday, 27 December 2018

Nonsense about the US withdrawal from Syria

 Michael Neumann:

 'This attempts to counter some of the foolish comments made about Trump's withdrawal from Syria.

 The least foolish of these is that the battle against ISIS is not won. No it isn't, and Trump's claim that it is, is plainly false. But to harp on this is absurd.

 For one thing, there isn't the slightest possibility that keeping US troops in Syria would win the battle, or prevent an ISIS resurgence. ISIS' ultimate strength lies, not in its Syrian or Iraqi enclaves, but in what the West and Arab authoritarian governments have done to the peoples of the region, and in the conditions in Muslim countries worldwide. These conditions guarantee a literally unending stream of militants seeking justice and revenge. The notion that 2000 US troops would affect this dynamic is ludicrous. Equally foolish are the tiresome recommendations that the underlying conditions be addressed. The sage pundits who say these things know perfectly well that the West will never, ever address these conditions: it can't, because they occur in sovereign states. It would take a Western occupation of those states, involving hundreds of thousands of troops for decades, to cure the injustices of the region, and even then it's not clear that the economic basis for healthy societies exists. In other words, whatever the West is going to do, whatever leadership it has, ISIS won't be defeated. What then is the point of warning us that Trump's withdrawal will not defeat ISIS?

 For another, forget the mantra about how effective the Kurds have been against ISIS. Their victories are almost entirely the result of overwhelming US air and artillery support. Their actual capabilities are better assessed by looking at how even a much-weakened ISIS can rout Kurdish forces with attacks during storms and under other conditions inimical to air operations. The Syrian rebels, not to mention the Turkish army, would be at least as effective as the Kurds in combating ISIS, and they wouldn't need a US ground presence to do it.

 There is more foolishness.

 It is said that withdrawal shows the US to be an unreliable ally, and that this is a dire mistake.

 In the first place, nothing says you're unreliable like supporting, with weapons, troops and air power, the armed, active enemy of your ally. That's what the US did when it backed the Syrian arm of the Kurdish PKK against its NATO ally, Turkey. So Trump's withdrawal of this support could well be seen as a return to reliability, not the abandonment of it.

 Second, it's unclear that appearing unreliable in this instance would make much difference to the US position in the world. Nations are allied to the US, not because they have touching faith in America, but because they have little choice. They don't want to fall under Russian or Chinese domination. The idea that alliances are made and preserved on trust runs contrary to all historical precedent. It's childish.

 It is said that US withdrawal is a gift to Putin.

 This carries absurdity into insanity. The unspoken truth about the US' Kurdish 'allies' is that they are also allies of Russia and Assad. In the 2015 campaigns against rebel Aleppo, Russia and Assad even provided air support to the Kurds. Later, Assad secured for the Kurds a road whereby they could move between their Northeastern and Northwestern territories. He also pays for much of the infrastructure in the Northeastern provinces. This means that, in allying with the PKK/YPG, the US is allied to Assad, Russia... and Iran. It's true that Putin probably enjoys seeing the US leave; he doesn't want a US presence in Syria. But it's also true that Obama, and until now Trump, have been fighting on Putin's side. He now faces an expanded Turkish presence in Northern Syria, which threatens and complicates his relations with Assad and Iran. Because Turkey backs the rebels, it even threatens the security of Russian bases in Latakia and Tartous. Trump's withdrawal means the US will mend relations with Turkey. That in turn means Putin can't expect to pry that country - a real strategic prize that until recently seemed almost within his grasp - away from its Western alliance. Finally, the US retains its air bases and naval presence in the region, so that US withdrawal of 2000 troops from Syria makes not the slightest difference to the regional balance of power. Some gift.

 It is said, with feeling, that the Kurds have been betrayed.

 Even if there is some truth to this, it is foolish. For one thing, the Kurds have been supremely opportunistic in their choice of allies. They feigned neutrality when the rebels were strong, yet with increasing frankness came out on Assad's side when the rebels faltered. For another, the morality of betrayal depends on circumstances. The Kurds chose to ally with a régime so monstrous that adjectives like 'brutal' can't begin to capture the extent of its atrocities. When the King of Italy abandoned Mussolini in 1943 he betrayed Hitler. Was that reprehensible?

 The criticism of Trump's withdrawal, though couched in the language of morality and even honour, is curiously oblivious to the sort of humanitarian considerations that you'd think would belong to those values. The most likely consequence of US withdrawal - should it really occur - is that Northern Syria will become a refuge for perhaps millions of Syrians, under Turkish protection. Meanwhile in the rest of Syria, as widely predicted, Syrians in formerly rebel areas are subjected to arbitrary imprisonment, torture, and murder. But sure, pontificate some more about the US withdrawal.'

Monday, 24 December 2018

Daraa’s resurgent resistance has lessons for the Syrian régime

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 'Anti-régime activities in southern Syrian areas formerly held by rebels have flared up again, including both peaceful expressions, such as graffiti and demonstrations, but also violent incidents.

 More than a dozen pro-government fighters and intermediaries have been killed in a series of hit-and-run attacks since November. These attacks are especially significant in a region that the government just captured a few months ago, emphasizing that the country is very much still in a state of war.

 While abuses and bad-faith negotiations by Damascus are largely to blame for provoking renewed violence, the example of Daraa makes it clear that peace will remain elusive in the absence of a comprehensive and fair political solution.

 After the government’s capture of the south in July, achieved largely through negotiations, its intermediaries and intelligence agencies started opening regional offices to process local residents’ plea for clemency. The process theoretically provided the signatories with general amnesties, which typically was supposed to exempt them for six months from the obligatory military conscription required of men of fighting age.

 Despite those guarantees, however, the government has continued to arrest local residents, including civilians as well as former rebel fighters, even when they were in the process of turning themselves in. Reports show that authorities detained at least 68 people in October alone, while more than 30,000 men have been called up for enlistment, including both new recruits and reserves, before the six-month grace period expired.

 Every indication is that the gradual increase of violations by the régime of President Bashar al-Assad is what motivated the renewed resistance after months of relative calm. In a trend similar to the early months of the uprising in 2011, anti-régime sentiment has been expressed through non-violent acts, with familiar slogans such as “down with Bashar” and “the revolution is ongoing” painted on the walls of government buildings in towns such as al-Karek, al-Mazyrb, Nawa and al-Sanamayn.

 On the other hand, guerrilla tactics such as hit-and-run attacks and ambushes have also targeted various pro-government forces in the region. One early attack hit a government checkpoint in the city of Jasmin on November 24, killing two members of the national intelligence agency. A day later, a larger coordinated operation resulted in attacks on multiple checkpoints in the city centre of al-Sanamayn, killing more than six fighters.

 While some checkpoints appear to have been targeted randomly or for operational reasons, others seem to have been prioritized because of their reputations. For example, a military-intelligence checkpoint between the towns of al-Karek and al-Gharieh was apparently attacked because of the practices of its personnel, including arresting local residents as well as soliciting bribes.

 At the same time, a group calling itself “the popular resistance in the south” has emerged, in the media at least, claiming credit for the attacks and announcing a new phase in the fight against pro-government forces.

 The “popular resistance” made its first public statement to the Arabic news website Geiroon in November by declaring war against the Assad régime, its local intermediaries and Iranian-backed militias operating in the southern region. A spokesman of the group, identified by the pseudonym Al-Sief al-Horani, or the Sword of the Horan region, claimed that the group of former rebel fighters and other men facing obligatory conscription was continuing the rebellion.

 The secrecy surrounding the group and its members makes it difficult to verify whether it actually has operational capability, or is just taking credit for attacks carried out by unidentified individuals who are staying out of the spotlight. Given the multiple threats of infiltration, leaks and capture, it makes a great deal of sense that those behind the attacks might want to operate covertly.

 The Assad régime has applied a mixture of incentives and coercion to counter this new resistance and to ferret out the people behind it. Government delegations, including parliamentary members, intelligence officials and even the Grand Mufti of Syria, Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun, have visited Daraa recently in an attempt to ease tensions and defuse local resentment.

 The overtures, however, have been combined with the stick as the régime’s agents step up arrests of suspects in the attacks and those believed to be supporting them, including former activists and rebel fighters. So far, the strategy has failed, as the detentions further fuel local resentment already simmering because of the lack of public services.

 It is difficult to predict whether anti-régime activities will increase and destabilize Daraa, where the Syrian uprising first began in March 2011. But the situation shows all the conditions needed for stiffer local resistance to re-emerge: residents resent the régime, have little hope for the future and are equipped with the military experience and weapons to fight back.'

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Syrians Say UK Late Ex-Liberal-Democrat Paddy Ashdown Friend of Revolution

Former Liberal Democrat Leader Paddy Ashdown (Twitter)

 'Syrian activists are remembering former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown who died on Saturday aged 77, a British politician who opposed Bashar al-Assad's regime since the outbreak of revolution in Syria in 2011.

 Ashdown was an advocate of international law and calling war criminals to account, from the Bosnia war in the 1990s to the regime's brutal suppression of the Syria revolution recently.

 In 2016, he called for the UK and its allies to drop food and aid on opposition areas in Syria, which had been put under crippling starvation sieges by the Assad regime.

 On Saturday, after the surprise announcement of Ashdown's death, Syrian activists turned to Twitter to commemorate the former Lib Dem leader.

 "Paddy Ashdown was a friend of the Syrian Revolution. He supported us in bringing the Assad regime to justice, he supported us in humanitarian aid and vouched for aid drops in Syria - and openly berated those who didn't care for Syrian lives. RIP Lord Ashdown," said Razan Saffour on Twitter.

 Other Syria activist groups also remembered Ashdown as a supporter of their cause.

 Ashdown wrote an op-ed in January 2016 with Jo Cox - an MP who was shot dead by a British fascist the same year - calling for the Royal Air Force to drop food on the encircled Damascus suburb of Madaya, which had seen children die from starvation due to a regime siege.

 "If we could do it for the starving in besieged Srebrenica and again for the besieged [Yazidis] in northern Iraq, there should be no reason it cannot be done for those suffering and dying, in besieged Madaya," they wrote.

 Paddy Ashdown also said: "If we can drop bombs in Syria, we can drop food in Syria."

 Following the chemical gas attack on the opposition suburb of Douma in 2013, he also called for intervention against Bashar al-Assad's regime.

 When parliament voted against a military response to the chemical massacre, Ashdown warned that by allowing Assad to get away with gas his own people, it would give the regime the green light to continue its atrocities.

 "Call me an old war horse if you wish, but I think our country is greatly diminished this morning," he said after the vote in 2013. "MPs cheered last night, just recognise the people who will be cheering this morning are President Putin, President Assad... [after 50 years] I've never felt more depressed and ashamed this morning now that I have to wake up and see children burning on the television sets, as they were last night, and say the answer from my country is 'it's nothing to do with me' ".

 A former military man, he argued that the UK should not engage in isolationism and had a moral duty to act following the suspected sarin chemical attack in Eastern Ghouta in 2013, which killed hundreds, for the sake of international law and to protect civilians.

 "Last night we took a vote that we were not going to stand up to protect international law that stops the use of chemical weapons. They will now be more broadly used unless this is changed," he added in an interview.

 Assad launched two further major chemical attacks since then, and used chlorine dozens of other times on civilians in Syria.

 In April 2018, he reminded the country of continued war regime war crimes.

 "After the last major chemical attack by Assad in Aug 2013 I described Parliament's decision not to use force as the most shameful of my life, adding that chemical weapons 'will become more commonplace and we will feel the effects of that'. Terrible to say, so it has become..." he tweeted.'

Syrian activists thank late Paddy Ashdown for his support

Sunday, 23 December 2018

Syria’s once- teeming prison cells being emptied by mass murder

 'Bashar al-Assad’s army is doubling down on executions of political prisoners, with military judges accelerating the pace they issue death sentences, according to survivors of the country’s most notorious prison.

 In interviews, dozens of Syrians recently released from the Sednaya military prison in Damascus described a government campaign to clear the decks of political detainees. The former inmates said prisoners are being transferred from jails across Syria to join death-row detainees in Sednaya’s basement and then be executed in pre-dawn hangings.

 Yet despite these transfers, the population of Sednaya’s once-packed cells — which at their peak held an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 inmates — has dwindled largely because of the unyielding executions, and at least one section of the prison is now almost entirely empty, the former detainees said.

 Some of the former prisoners had themselves been sentenced to hang, escaping that fate only after relatives paid tens of thousands of dollars to secure their freedom. Others described overhearing conversations between guards relating to the transfer of prisoners to their death. The men all spoke on the condition that their full names not be disclosed out of fear for their families’ safety.

 According to two former detainees who have passed through the Damascus field court, located inside the capital’s military police headquarters, the rate of death sentences has accelerated over the past year as the attitudes of court officials hardened. These two men had each appeared twice before a military field court judge, once earlier in the war and once this year, and were able to compare the way this secretive court operates.

 “There was no room for leniency on my second visit,” one man said. “Almost everyone in that room was sentenced to death. They were reading the sentences aloud.”

 Even before they reach the gallows, many prisoners die of malnutrition, medical neglect or physical abuse, often after a psychological breakdown, the former detainees said.

 One former prisoner said guards had forced a metal pipe down the throat of a cellmate from the Damascus suburb of Darayya. “They pinned him to the wall with it and then left him to die. His body lay among us all night,” said Abu Hussein, 30, a mechanic from the western province of Homs. Another described how prisoners in his own cell had been forced to kick to death a man from the southern city of Daraa.

 Satellite imagery of the Sednaya prison grounds taken in March shows an accumulation of dozens of dark objects that experts said were consistent with human bodies.

 “Present in the imagery from March 1st and March 4th of the prison, there are dark elongated objects, similar to each other, measuring approximately five to six feet in length,” said Isaac Baker, imagery analysis manager at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative’s Signal Program on Human Security and Technology. “While analysis and available data does not prove, it does corroborate, and is consistent with, eyewitness accounts of mass executions at this facility.”

 Two former detainees held in cells nearest to the guardroom in their prison wing describe overhearing conversations between their jailers regarding executions in early March. “They were talking about a set of prisoners’ bodies that had been moved to the yard,” one man said.

 Other satellite imagery of military land near Damascus, previously identified by Amnesty International as a location of mass graves, appears to show an increase in the number of burial pits and headstones in at least one cemetery there since the start of the year. Defectors who worked in the military prison system said this area, located south of the capital, is the likely location for the mass burial of Sednaya prisoners.

 In the cemetery on the road running south from Damascus, dozens of new burial pits and headstones have appeared since the winter.

 More than 100,000 Syrian detainees remain unaccounted for. According to the United Nations and human rights groups, thousands, if not tens of thousands, are probably dead.

 Although all sides in the conflict have arrested, disappeared and killed prisoners, the Syrian Network for Human Rights monitoring group estimates that as many as 90 percent have been held across a network of government jails, where torture, starvation and other forms of lethal neglect are used systematically and to kill. At one point, Sednaya alone held as many as 20,000 inmates, according to Amnesty International.

 Former detainees recently released from Sednaya — interviewed in the Turkish cities of Istanbul, Gaziantep, Antakya and Siverek, as well as on the phone — say that guards enforced near-total silence among the prisoners, who sleep under blankets infested with mites and ticks on stone floors sticky with bodily fluids. “When you are in Sednaya, you cannot think of anything, you can’t even speak to yourself. The beatings are torture. The silence is torture,” said Mohamed, 28.

 He described the cellmates he had left behind as “caged animals.”

 “Some had their spirits completely broken, and others just became manic and crazed,” he said. “Death would be a mercy for them. It’s all they’re waiting for.”

 Although execution days vary, Sednaya’s former prisoners say the guards most commonly tour the cells on Tuesday afternoons, calling out names from lists.

 “You knew they were coming when they banged on the metal door and started screaming at us to turn around. Everyone would scramble to the wall and stand as still as they could,” one former inmate said. “Then you just stood there and prayed they didn’t pull you away.”

 In Mohamed’s case, that is exactly what they did. With a T-shirt pulled over his head, the former student was yanked out of his cell and taken to the basement death row, being beaten as he stumbled downstairs. He recalled being surrounded by the screams of others.

 He and other inmates were pushed into a cramped cell and stripped naked before the guards left, slamming the metal door behind them. The prisoners were kept there for a week.

 Even more prisoners were jammed into an adjacent cell. They included Hassan, 29, a farmer who had been transferred to Sednaya from a civilian prison in the southern city of Sweida. Sitting up all night and waiting for death, the men talked in low whispers, sharing their life stories, as well as their regrets.

 “It was dark in there, but what I could see of their faces was pure terror,” Hassan said. “Eventually everyone stopped talking.”

 Yet when guards came to take prisoners, neither Mohamed nor Hassan had their names called. They would later learn that their families had paid tens of thousands of dollars to a government-connected middleman — part of a network that has sprung up during the war to provide families with news of detained relatives and at times help release them in return for vast sums of money.

 The Assad régime has been issuing death notices for political prisoners at an unprecedented rate. The practice began accelerating in January and, in many cases, appears to confirm that detainees had been dead since the early years of the conflict.

 In a report released last month, the U.N. body established to investigate war crimes in Syria said that the mass release of death notices amounts to an admission by the government that it has been responsible for the deaths of prisoners whose detention it had denied for years.

 “We think it must be linked, obviously, to the state beginning to look ahead beyond the conflict — to feeling like ‘our existence is no longer completely under threat and we have to look ahead at how do we deal with the population at large,’ ” said Hanny Megally, a lead investigator with the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria. “People are demanding now more information about what happened, why, where. Where are the bodies?”

 In interviews, former prisoners offered a rare window into the workings of the military field court, where the accused appear without lawyers and charge sheets are often the product of torture. Detainees arrive cuffed and blindfolded. Their trials rarely last longer than three minutes.

 In some cases, the recent executions in Sednaya were based on sentences handed down years ago. What has changed, former detainees say, is the haste with which new ones are being issued.

 Once the prisoners are hanged, their bodies are usually carried straight from the execution room to a waiting truck or car and then transported for registration at a military hospital before being buried in the mass graves on military land, according to Amnesty International.

 Mohamed and Hassan were among those who dodged that fate. After years of what they described as torture and extreme neglect, leaving both with scars and severe health issues, both made it across the border to Turkey earlier this year.

 As Hassan crossed from Syrian-held territory into a final rebel stronghold close to the Turkish border, the smugglers guiding his group mistakenly steered it into a minefield, and his leg was blown off. He still screams in his sleep.

 “The Sednaya memories cannot easily be forgotten,” he said. “Most of my cellmates are dead now. I keep thinking of the people who are still there.” '

Daraa demonstrators call to topple Assad regime

 'Dozens of Syrian demonstrators took to the streets on Friday (Dec. 21) in Daraa countryside, chanting anti-Assad slogans, and calling to topple the Assad regime.

 Peaceful protesters hit the streets in Daraa al-Balad after Friday prayers chanting “The people want to overthrow the Assad regime.”

 They also called for the release the detainees in Assad regime prisons, chanting “free the detainees.”

 The demonstrators expressed their refusal of the reconciliation agreement with the Assad regime, describing the former Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters who signed reconciliation agreement with the Assad regime as traitors.

 Syrians shared the video of the demonstration on social media, and said that it reminded them of the early weeks of the Syrian revolution.'

 'Protesters chant "no more taswiyeh" (the bureaucratic process "reconciled" adults must undergo post-surrender) & "we want the release of detainees" '
 'Ahmad Shlash, Assad shabih & former member of Assad rubber-stamp parliament, threatens demonstrators in against Assad in Daraa: Surrender yourselves to Assad security or we will teach again.'

 'Assad regime forces are reportedly combing al-Herak, Daraa, after graffiti appeared on the walls of the local Air Force Intelligence branch calling for Assad's downfall. Similar graffiti appeared in eastern Daraa towns a month ago. '