While entering Raqqa from the eastern side, past dusty, desolate neighbourhoods, a nearby explosion briefly rocks the armored vehicle carrying a FRANCE 24 team and fighters with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
The coalition of Kurdish and Arab fighters battling the IS group in the heart of its de facto capital is facing a new, technologically advanced threat from the skies.
“A drone has targeted our vehicle. The bomb fell 50 metres away,” a female Kurdish fighter in the vehicle explains.
The IS group is targeting US-backed forces with drones rigged with grenade-sized munitions with a relatively high degree of accuracy. The small, agile unmanned aerial vehicles are very difficult to shoot down and are slowing down the advance into the heart of the Syrian city.
On the roof of one of the tallest buildings in the area, SDF fighters find it impossible to set up anti-sniper positions since the jihadist group’s attacks from the skies are fairly frequent.
‘They do this every day’
“Two to three drones rotate everyday here. They target our logistic lines and our ammunition depots. So far this morning, we have been bombed three times. By the end of the day, they will have targeted us 15 to 16 times. They do this every day,” explains Zargos, an SDF fighter.
On the ground, the SDF fighters have made holes in the building’s walls so they can move around undetected.
Scanning the skies from the roof, an SDF commander gives out an alert for his fighters to take cover from an approaching drone. But the drone attacks are so frequent, the SDF fighters react reluctantly.
The IS group is also using drones in the battle for the Iraqi city of Mosul. But here in Raqqa, unlike in Mosul, the anti-IS coalition has limited anti-drone stopping systems.
The US is looking to send additional anti-drone equipment and troops into Syria, a Pentagon source told the Washington Post earlier this month. But it is unclear what type of anti-drone systems and troops might be sent into Syria if the Pentagon decides to bolster its defenses there.
In the battle for Raqqa, the threat also comes from the skies, forcing SDF troops to adapt to the new scenario. Coalition troops these days only move under cover, which is efficient, but has been slowing down the advance into this symbolic city in the war against the IS group.