First Published: 2017-10-16

Batteries, tape to thank for defeating jihadists in Raqa
Back-to-basics approach employed by SDF in battle for Raqa includes making batteries for walkie-talkies essential for communication between several fronts.
Middle East Online

Hand-made battery packs keep walkie-talkies charged for up to two days

RAQA - Once the last Islamic State group fighters are ousted from Syria's Raqa, the unconventional forces battling the jihadists say they'll have batteries and masking tape to thank for their victory.

The Syrian Democratic Forces on the verge of seizing IS's former bastion Raqa have received sophisticated support from the US-led coalition, including air strikes, weaponry, and intelligence.

But winning their months-long offensive against the jihadists, they say, required going back to basics.

In a cavernous warehouse just east of Raqa's Old City, SDF fighters sit cross-legged on a dusty rug piled high with cylinder-shaped three-volt batteries, masking tape, empty cigarette packs and loose wires.

The materials are used to make primitive powerbanks to charge the walkie-talkies that SDF commanders rely on to communicate with each other across Raqa's frontlines.

As artillery fire and air strikes echo in the background, the assembly line gets to work. One fighter stacks eight batteries into a brick-like shape while another prepares the tape that will hold them together.

A third peels the aluminium foil from white cigarette packs -- perfect for a conductor -- and begins taping it to the wires he snipped from the walls of the battered building.

"Our positions have to be in touch 24 hours per day with these walkie-talkies, but they're not that great," says local SDF commander Sevger Himo.

- 'Mother of invention' -

Built-in batteries last just three hours, which forced SDF commanders to switch them off between coordinating storming operations, defensive rocket fire, or civilian rescues.

But with the hand-made battery packs, walkie-talkies stay charged for up to two straight days.

The powerbanks are ubiquitous in battle-ravaged Raqa, including in frontline positions near the city's hospital and football stadiums, two of IS's last redoubts in the city.

SDF fighters advancing there are often isolated for days from rear bases, making fully-charged walkie-talkies their only link to the outside world.

"This has saved lives more than once. Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say," says Himo, a young fighter with a boyish face.

"National armies have their own factories, but we're a military force without much international support -- so we rely on things we can get in the market and then adjust."

Founded in late 2015, the SDF is not a conventional army and many of its young Arab and Kurdish fighters have received no previous military training.

In Raqa, they fight in dusty sneakers or even plastic sandals and sustain themselves on a diet of water, bread, and extremely sugary tea.

SDF forces have even developed creative tripwire systems in the multi-storey apartments they are using as bases near the frontline.

Crushed plastic water bottles are scattered all along the tiled staircase in one apartment building near the national hospital -- but SDF commander Gabar Derek insists they are not litter.

"If a stranger tries to come up the stairs at night, he will step on these bottles and make noise, warning the fighters on watch duty upstairs," says the bearded fighter.

He says he used a cowbell tied to a wire in another position for the same purpose.

- 'Hand-made, locally produced' -

One of the SDF's favourite innovations, however, remains a hand-made explosive device dubbed "the fuse".

Each melon-sized, misshapen package is filled with TNT, held together by tape and features a six to eight-inch (15 to 20 centimetre) fuse and a long fabric handle.

"We use the handle so we can carry four or five at a time," says Mohammad, a boisterous fighter positioned in the central neighbourhood of Al-Nahda.

Indeed, he has four "fuses" hanging around his neck and says proudly that they are "hand-made and locally produced" -- though the SDF refused several requests to see the factory on the outskirts of Raqa where they are made.

Mohammad says the bombs are the perfect weapon to counter IS's toughest tactics: snipers and secret tunnels.

"We toss these in streets monitored by snipers, and they bring up a lot of dust so we can cross safely without snipers seeing us," he says.

More conventional explosives are less effective because they don't create as opaque a smokescreen or as loud a blast.

"If there's a bunker or tunnel used by Daesh, we just throw one inside. Or two, if that's not enough," Mohammad says, using the Arabic acronym for IS.

He cheerfully sets off into the rubble-littered street with a "fuse" and a lighter to support a fresh push by his forces.

"This saves lives," he says.


Iraq launches operation to clear last IS holdouts from desert

Divided Syria opposition meets in Riyadh

Lebanon’s Hariri suspends resignation

Revolt in US State Department over child soldier law

Outrage in Iraq over 'child marriage' bill

Hezbollah hails PM's suspension of resignation

Syrian opposition aims for unity at talks in Riyadh

Egypt police kill 3 Islamists in shootout

Turkey unsure if Assad to be part of Syria political transition

Migrant arrivals from Libya down since EU deal

Palestinian factions leave Cairo talks with little progress

Sudan’s Bashir looks to Putin for ‘protection’ from US aggression

China, Djibouti forge 'strategic' ties

IS propaganda channels fall quiet in 'unprecedented' hiatus

Kremlin to create Syria congress despite Turkey ‘reservations’

Netanyahu berates deputy minister for 'offensive' remarks on US Jews

Egypt PM heads to Germany for medical treatment

Egypt destroys 10 SUVs carrying arms on Libya border

Saudi-led coalition to reopen Yemen airport, port to aid

Turkey court rules to keep Amnesty chief in jail

France calls for UN meeting on Libya slave-trading

Egypt detains 29 for allegedly spying for Turkey

WTO panel to hear Qatar’s complaint against UAE blockade

Three dead as diphtheria spreads in Yemen

Israel seizes explosive material at Gaza border

Activists call for release of UK journalist held by IS

Bahrain upholds jail sentence for activist

Iraq attacks at lowest since 2014

Turkey continues crackdown in post-coup probe

Hariri back in Lebanon

Putin to hold Syria peace talks with Erdogan, Rouhani

US carries out air strikes against IS in Libya

Lebanon's Hariri in Egypt ahead of return home

Rebels say Sanaa airport 'ready to run' after coalition bombing

Greece to amend historic sharia law for Muslim minority

Turkey to ask Germany to extradite top coup suspect

Car bomb in northern Iraq kills at least 24

Morocco bans bitcoin transactions

13 million Syrians need aid despite relative drop in violence

Sudan urged to improve plight of Darfur's displaced people

Brain drain means Syria can’t recover for a generation

Palestinians close communication lines with Americans

Anti-IS coalition strikes drop to lowest number

German police arrest six Syrians ‘planning terror attack’

Palestinian factions in Cairo for reconciliation talks