|Image provided by Homs Media Centre of smoke rising after airstrikes in Talbiseh. Photograph: Associated Press|
On the streets of Latakia there were celebrations. In Hama and Homs, there was panic. All knew that the moment would come when Russian jets joined the war, dropping their bombs far from Islamic State (Isis) forces.
As news spread of the Russian airstrikes that reportedly killed more than 60 people in three restive areas of central and north-western Syria on Wednesday, opposition groups went into hiding.
In the regime stronghold of Latakia, residents draw no distinction between the jihadi group, which Vladimir Putin said his forces would target, or other opposition groups that have battled the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, for the past four years.
“They’re all terrorists,” said Saleh al-Tartousi, an import contractor based in Latakia. “They should not be spared mercy.”
Elsewhere in the city, opposition members said the targets proved Moscow had no intention of confining its attacks to Isis, despite its earlier claims, and that it saw non-jihadi rebel units as an even bigger threat to the regime’s survival.
“I am living in an area under the regime’s control,” said Latakia resident Abu Mohammed, 27, a supporter of forces trying to oust Assad. “And I can tell you they are very happy about what is happening. They feel proud of all of the bombing and the killing [of] the civilians. The regime hates us more than Isis. They consider us the real enemy.
“No one can leave the areas that have been bombed,” he added. “These people have nowhere to go. If they leave the [targeted] towns, they will be arrested at regime checkpoints immediately. Everybody has decided to run and hide in different homes. They are trapped like rats in a hole.”
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In nearby Hama, one group targeted in the strikes, Tajammu al-Izzah, is considered to be an important member of the Free Syrian army (FSA) in the area. It was one of the few in Syria to have received anti-tank rockets and had regularly used them against Syrian tanks and armoured vehicles across central Syria.
The group posted videos on the internet of the aftermath of the strikes, which struck its base in the foothills of Hama. Tajammu al-Izzah is thought to be one of a small number of opposition groups to have been vetted by US military officials in Turkey.
A Hama local, who identified himself as Muhannad, 25, said on Wednesday night: “The airstrikes aren’t stopping. We have lost count of them. I can tell it is the Russians. They are faster and the sound of the bombs are different from those of the regime. They have bombed Talbiseh, al-Mukarama, Reef Homs al-shamali. All of these areas are mainly under FSA control. We don’t have here any Isis but we have a small number of al-Nusra. We expected this to happen but there is no place to flee to.”
Bombs also struck Syria’s third city, Homs, where opposition groups have proved difficult to dislodge throughout the war. Osama Abu Zeid, a journalist based in the city, said: “Today, it is the moderate Syrian opposition that was targeted and a lot of civilian areas, and most of the martyrs and wounded are civilians.
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“The reaction of the civilians in these areas is the loss of faith in America and the policies of Obama and Putin. Everybody is talking about a de facto US-Russian-Assad alliance against the Syrian people. These issues will increase terrorism, not reduce it.
“When civilians see Russian aircraft bombing safe areas with American blessing under the guise of war against terrorism, what can we expect from them? The creation and growth of terrorist cells that want revenge for their dead children and mothers.”
Abu Zeid said opposition factions had ousted Isis members from northern Homs six months ago. The fighting claimed dozens of lives among the myriad opposition groups.
Tamer, 27, from Latakia, said the airstrikes had come a day after many men in north-western Syria were ordered to join the military.
“So far there have been 10 airstrikes in Latakia and planes are flying intensively over the Hama countryside. We know that the Russians said they are here to attack Isis but we knew they would attack the opposition. There is no Isis in [this part of] Syria. These areas have groups from the well-trained FSA, Ahrar al-Sham and small groups of Jabhat al-Nusra.”
Another Latakia local, who identified herself as Dima, believed Russia was not there to fight terrorism but to help the regime and its interests.
“People with the regime have no mercy for Sunnis. If they are living on the side of the FSA and want to leave, they won’t let them. They don’t want anyone to leave alive.”
Additional reporting by Mais al-Baya’a