SEPT. 23, 2014
Startling Sight Where Blasts Are the Norm
By BEN HUBBARD
BEIRUT, Lebanon -- When the predawn blasts rattled their windows and jolted them from sleep, residents of Raqqa, the Syrian city that is the de facto capital of the Islamic State, thought they were in for a new round of airstrikes from the Syrian government.
But as the sun rose, it was quickly clear that something altogether different had taken place. A drone  had collided with a satellite tower  and crashed to the ground. The former governor's office used as a headquarters had been reduced to rubble. An equestrian club where fighters had lodged their families and a training camp near town had also been bombed.
Even after a year living under the fist of the so-called Islamic State, where men with guns and a messianic vision controlled nearly every aspect of their lives, the people of Raqqa were surprised by what they found.
"I opened my shop at 8 a.m., and everything was ordinary," said a shopkeeper who gave his name as Abu Khalil. "Then I heard from my neighbor that today's attacks were by the Americans, and not the regime."
The attack was part of President Obama's strategy of denying the leaders and fighters of the militant group, also known as ISIS, a safe haven in Raqqa Province and its capital.
Raqqa is where, for more than a year, the group massed its forces, honed its ideology and strategy and began its effort to build a caliphate -- or Islamic state. Step by step, it methodically turned this northern Syrian city into a hub of the most extreme Islamist ideology, where crucifixions were routine, and the religious police banned even cigarettes.
On Tuesday, the men with beards and guns tried to act as if it were just another day. Fighters from the Islamic State drove around to distribute cooking gas. But soon reports trickled in that the campaign of strikes by the United States and five Arab allies had destroyed many of the group's facilities, killed scores of its fighters and dealt a serious blow to much that it had managed to build over the past year.
The coalition hit training camps, headquarters and a recently captured air base. In Deir al-Zour Province, along the border with Iraq, at least a dozen sites were hit, including an agricultural school turned into a command center.
And attacks in Hasaka Province sought to loosen the group's grip on Syria's petroleum wealth, which it has used to fund its operations.
At least one of the strikes killed civilians as well, raising suspicions of American motives even among those who said they were otherwise happy to see the Islamic State pushed back.
"We know the history of American strikes in Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen," said Ziad al-Ali, an unemployed university graduate in Raqqa. "When civilians are going to be killed, sorry is not enough."
It was hard to gauge on Tuesday just how much the strikes had degraded the military capacity of the Islamic State or who was more likely to benefit: the government of Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, or the rebels seeking his ouster.
But the strikes added a volatile new element to the country's three-and-a-half-year civil war, and signs emerged that alliances on the ground could shift in unexpected ways.
Most of the strikes hit the extensive military and economic infrastructure of the Islamic State in northern and eastern Syria.
While Mr. Obama had announced that the Islamic State would be targeted, the United States also hit at least two bases belonging to the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda's Syria affiliate, exposing the gap between how the United States and many of Syria's rebels see the group, as well as the hazards of attacking it.
The United States considers the Nusra Front a terrorist organization, and American officials said the strikes disrupted an imminent plot to attack the West by an offshoot of Qaeda veterans known as Khorasan. 
One strike hit an area of abandoned villas on the western edge of Aleppo Province, killing at least 50 Nusra Front members, most of them foreigners and including at least a dozen leaders, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
A second strike in a village farther west, Kafr Dariyan, killed 15 people, including seven Nusra fighters and eight civilians, among them four children, the observatory said. An American military official said this was the strike against Khorasan.
A video  posted online showed residents removing a body from the rubble of a collapsed building.
Even rebels who supported the strikes on the Islamic State criticized the targeting of the Nusra Front, which they consider a loyal partner in the battle against Mr. Assad.
"It is not the right time to target the Nusra Front," said Lt. Col. Fares al-Bayyoush, whose rebel group has received support  from the United States and its allies.
Colonel Bayyoush was also angry that the American strike had killed civilians and that the United States was not attacking Mr. Assad and his allies, like the Lebanese group Hezbollah, which the United States also classifies as a terrorist organization.
"Isn't Hezbollah a terrorist organization and the coalition wants to target all terrorist organizations in Syria?" he asked.
The coalition strikes did not appear to have any immediate effect on the country's front lines, although some communities that had been attacked by the Islamic State took solace in seeing it bombed.
For nearly a week, Syrian Kurds from the area of Ayn al-Arab, or Kobani in Kurdish, have been flooding into Turkey because of an offensive by the Islamic State on their communities. The United Nations said 138,000 had entered Turkey since Friday.
But on Tuesday, a crowd of mostly older men, women and children were clamoring to return, saying that the strikes on the Islamic State had made them more confident that Kurdish militias could fend off the jihadists.
"We don't know if American interference will be a problem in the future, but for the time being it is good," said Azad Abdullah, 30, a laborer from Ayn al-Arab. "What is important is that we can go back to our homes."
In other Syrian communities, the coalition strikes added a new level of uncertainty to their wartime lives.
Many who had grown accustomed to seeking cover from government airstrikes during the day now worried that they would have to avoid coalition strikes at night.
"They don't know what to do," said an antigovernment activist who gave only his first name, Anas. "During the day, they run from the regime strikes, and at night they run from the coalition strikes."
The strikes on the Nusra Front have also made many residents worry that the local rebels could be targeted, too, he said, and they requested that the fighters move out of residential areas to avoid harm to civilians.
In building its international coalition against the Islamic State, the United States has said it will form partnerships with local forces in Syria and Iraq to fight the group on the ground. But even those who support Syria's rebels worried that they were not strong enough to take advantage of any vacuum that might arise.
One activist who had fled Raqqa when the Islamic State took over said he hoped the strikes would weaken the jihadists but worried that Mr. Assad would benefit.
"Maybe the regime will take over ISIS' locations if the weak rebels aren't able to after the strikes," said the activists, who gave only his nickname, Abu Bakr.
Many government supporters were worried about where events might lead because some of the countries in the coalition, like Qatar and Saudi Arabia, have called for Mr. Assad to step down or actively supported his enemies with money and arms.
"I don't trust the coalition," said a man who gave only his first name, Jamal, from a Shiite village in northern Syria that is besieged by Sunni rebels. "They might take advantage of the situation and hit important locations, like the airport where the regime is, and I am afraid of errors."
Reporting was contributed by Mohammed Ghannam and Hwaida Saad from Beirut; Anne Barnard and Karam Shoumali from Suruc, Turkey; and an employee of The New York Times from Raqqa, Syria.