REYHANLI, Turkey — Anti-government media activists and rebel commanders gave a mixed assessment of U.S.-led airstrikes in northern Syria on Tuesday, saying that some of the Islamic State encampments hit had been evacuated and one building that was struck had been filled with displaced civilians, even as at least one major Islamic State base was seriously damaged and many fighters were killed.
But the greatest damage, they said, may be to the Free Syrian Army, the moderate rebel faction that enjoyed U.S. support for years.
By focusing exclusively on Islamic State insurgents and al-Qaida figures associated with the Khorasan unit of the Nusra Front, and bypassing installations associated with the government of President Bashar Assad, the airstrikes infuriated anti-regime Syrians and hurt the standing of moderate rebel groups that are receiving arms and cash as part of a covert CIA operation based in the Turkish border city of Reyhanli.
Rebel fighters argue that they constitute the only friendly ground force available to the international coalition to fill the security vacuum in places that Islamic State fighters are forced to abandon. But rebel commanders said they had played no role in selecting the targets or planning for the aftermath.
The U.S. informed the Syrian government of the impending airstrikes Monday, the official Syrian news agency reported, but no one dropped a hint to the inner circle of rebel commanders. They learned about it from the news.
While the official Syrian news agency reported the U.S.-led assaults in neutral terms, without even mentioning the repeated breaches of Syrian sovereignty, rebel leaders minced no words.
“Public support is the source of our power,” said Col. Hassan Hamadi, a defected Syrian army officer whose Legion 5 force has about 6,400 fighters. The bombings caused “a lot” of damage, he said.
He and other rebel commanders are taking heat from their own troops and anti-government Syrians for what may have been an erroneous strike — the destruction of temporary housing for internally displaced civilians in Kafr Daryan in Idlib province, which caused the deaths of 10 — and eight attacks on installations belonging to the Nusra Front, al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria but an effective ally in the fight against the Assad regime. U.S. officials said the strikes were aimed at Khorasan, a Nusra unit that includes senior al-Qaida figures who allegedly were plotting an attack on Western targets.
The deaths of the civilians evoked an emotional response.
“People see there was a massacre in which innocent people were killed,” Hamadi said. “They are asking, ‘Who is responsible, the (U.S.-led) coalition or the Assad regime?’”
Who was in the building at the time was unknown. One media activist told McClatchy that the missile killed at least 10 “emirs” of the Nusra Front, but another activist denied that any Nusra leaders were in the building.
“Nusra is still popular in Syria,” Hamadi said. “And now Nusra is playing on the emotions of the Syrian people.” It says that those who deal with the West become part of the West, he said. “They are accusing us of being traitors. And the majority of the Syrian people are speaking in the same tone.”
But the biggest complaint about the bombings was that they didn’t target Assad.
The regime “is the head of terrorism,” Hamadi said. “If there is a comprehensive solution which targets the regime and the jihadi groups together, then all the Syrian people will stand by us, and they will be with the bombing.
But if the war against terrorists excludes the regime, “it’s lacking something important.”
Raad Alawi, the commander of a smaller group of fighters, the Squadrons of Al Haq, told McClatchy he was very angry.
“Starting the war with the bombing of Nusra is an indication that this is a war against the revolution and not Daash,” he said, using the pejorative Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. “Maybe next they will bomb the bases of the Free Syrian Army.”
The Hazm movement, which also receives U.S. and international support, issued a statement condemning the airstrikes, the failure to consult the Free Syrian Army and the deaths of civilians.
On Facebook, critics of the U.S. and its Arab allies, calling them “aggressors” and the “Crusade Coalition,” dominated the postings Tuesday by almost 10 to 1.
One of those venting his anger on Facebook was Col. Faris Bayoush, the leader of the Fursan al Haq Brigade, which also receives support from the U.S. and its allies.
“The international coalition is superficially against terrorism, but it is (really) against Islam, and it will bomb all the positions of the Syrian opposition. And in a word, it is with the regime,” he wrote.
Then there was Ala’a al Barri, a man in his early 20s who said he had just visited Al Atarib, a town west of Aleppo. “Everyone there is praying to Allah to give victory to the mujahedeen and to all Islamists who are being targeted by this infidel bombing,” he wrote.
At a hotel in this southern Turkish town, now overrun by Syrian refugees, Syrian guests approached McClatchy reporters Tuesday morning to vent their anger.
“The American strikes against Daash help the Assad regime and push moderate Syrians closer to Daash,” said Telal Sattof , 40, a chemical engineer from Homs “The Syrian regime is responsible for Daash. If you want to get rid of extreme Islamists — and I do — you have to get rid of Assad. Just give us the weapons to fight him.”
Another hotel guest, who gave his name only as Khalid, said that as result of the bombing, two of his cousins were en route to Raqqa to join the Islamic State.
There was cheering in one corner of northern Syria, in Kobane canton, now under an Islamic State siege. More than 150,000 Kurdish residents have fled to Turkey.
“I think the coming hours and days will see a change in the fighting. The airstrikes will have a big effect on them,” said Idriss Nassan, the deputy foreign minister of the canton. “Maybe the Islamic State will disappear from here.”
Media activists in Raqqa, the unofficial capital of the Islamic State in Syria, said the buildings and encampments of the Islamic State had been empty when they were bombed, and activists in Ash Shadaddi said all the Islamic State’s bases were empty when bombed.
But airstrikes at Tabqa airport near Raqqa, which the Islamic State captured from the regime last month, caused considerable damage and killed a “big number” of jihadi fighters, Hamadi said.