The video, said to have been shot Tuesday in northwestern Syria, shows Idlib province residents going through motions that have become all too familiar in three years of civil war between antigovernment rebels and the forces of President Bashar Assad: surveying the remnants of flattened homes and picking through the debris.
This time, though, the bombs rained down from a government other than Assad’s. “Mass destruction of the civilian homes as a result of the strikes of the Western alliance on the civilians in the western Idlib suburbs,” an antigovernment activist says in the video. “Look, it is all civilian homes.”
As officials in Washington released vivid photographic evidence of the destruction of militant Islamists’ training camps and headquarters, videos on social media and statements by a wide range of Syrian rebel groups painted a more complex picture of the damage caused by the first rounds of U.S.-led airstrikes in Syria.
Activists say as many as two dozen civilians were killed in the bombardments that began late Monday, and public opinion varied greatly, with some who have suffered at the hands of militants with the group Islamic State praising the attacks and others decrying the loss of civilian life or the fact that the campaign wasn’t targeting the government of Assad.
Even some rebel groups that have lost members and territory in clashes with Islamic State said they didn’t think the airstrikes would be to their benefit.
“The only beneficiary of external intervention in Syria is the Assad regime, especially in the absence of any true strategy to bring him down,” said a statement by the rebel group Harakat Hazm, a partner in the Free Syrian Army, which has received American-made antitank weapons and covert CIA training. “Mercy upon the martyrs.”
Further complicating matters is the fact that some of the strikes targeted partners of Al Qaeda-linked Al Nusra Front, which, unlike Islamic State, enjoys wide support among Syrian rebels and civilians living in opposition-controlled areas.
“We are unaware of any civilian casualties,” U.S. Lt. Gen. William Mayville, who directs operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a news briefing at the Pentagon. “If any reports of civilian casualties emerge, we will fully investigate.”
In Syria, estimates of the number of civilians killed varied from eight to 24.
Antigovernment activists said that five missiles struck in Idlib province, four on Al Nusra Front bases and weapons warehouses and the other in a residential neighborhood in the village of Kafar Daryan. The Syrian Network for Human Rights said 12 people were killed in the village, including four children in one family.
“Because civilians were targeted in Aleppo and Idlib,” said Abdulkareem Laila, spokesman with Islamic Front, an Islamist coalition of rebels allied with both the Western-backed Free Syrian Army and Al Nusra Front. “Once Syrian civilian blood has been shed, all benefits go away.”
Another group, the Mujahedin Army, released a statement saying that “any strikes that do not target the regime and its lackeys … is conspiring against our people and our great revolution.”
Omar Zafer, a resident of Dair Alzour, in eastern Syria, said Islamic State militants evacuated their bases before the strikes and most casualties were among the civilian population.
“Everyone is against the airstrikes and there is sympathy toward ISIS,” he said, using one of the acronyms for Islamic State.
Even those who contradicted his account of civilian deaths agreed that there was widespread concern about further strikes.
“There is fear among residents; they fear upcoming strikes could hit them,” said Omar Abu Laili, an antigovernment activist in Dair Alzour. “We support the airstrikes as long as they don’t target civilians. The people have reached the point where they are willing to ask for help from any side.”
American officials said three waves of airstrikes in northern Syria hit militants’ headquarters, training camps, weapons, fuel depots and command and control centers. The strikes, which U.S. officials said were conducted with the help of several Arab states, struck 14 Islamic State targets in Raqqah, Dair Alzour, Hasakah and Abu Kamal.
In Raqqah, where Islamic State militants first began implementing a brutal interpretation of Islam, no civilian deaths were reported.
Hours after the last airstrike, fighters with the group gathered Tuesday in public areas of the city where the corpses of those executed by Islamic State are put on display. They told residents that Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which took part in the airstrikes, were attacking them, resident Abu Muhammad said. The militants threatened the Arab countries with car bombings in retaliation for cooperating with the West, he said.
“The civilians all say, ‘May God destroy ISIS and take revenge upon them,’” he said. “They want to get rid of ISIS at any cost.”
Special correspondent Nabih Bulos in Beirut contributed to this report.