The United States appears to now be flying unarmed surveillance drones over the IS stronghold of Raqqa, Syria. The pictures thus far suggest that the drone being used is the Predator. The two photos show the distinct downward facing V-shaped tail used on Predator drones, and the aircraft does not appear to be carrying any missiles. As such, the available evidence indicates that the drone is being used for surveillance purposes, rather than in a hunter-killer type mission.
According to local activists, the drone has been circling over the city for three hours. If the reports are true, this would suggest that the air environment over Raqqa is permissive. Drones are visible on radar and easy to shoot down with air defense systems. The evidence thus far suggests that the drone is acquiring imagery – and possibly signals intelligence (SIGINT) – of Islamic State positions in the group’s most important stronghold. There is little doubt that this mission is intended to give US policymakers more information about IS positions in Raqqa. However, it does not necessarily signal the imminent use of force against IS positions in Syria.
As of now, there is no information about where the drones are based. However, open-source information allows for some informed guesses. The United States currently bases Predator drones in Turkey at Incirlik Air Force Base. The three drones are routinely flown over Northern Iraq and data is shared in real time with the Turkish military.
A second option could be that the drones are being flown from Kuwait. Satellite imagery captured the deployment of US drones at Ali Salem Air Base.
A third option is that the United States is now flying drones from an airbase in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Update A regional security expert reports Predator drones were seen operating in the civilian airport near Erbil.