Kurdish Militia Denies Ties to Foreign Fighters Claiming New LGBT Unit in Syria

Raqqa SDF fighter
A Kurdish fighter from the People's Protection Units (YPG) gestures inside a house burned during clashes with Islamic State militants in Raqqa, Syria, June 27. Reuters/Goran Tomasevic

The Syrian Kurdish militia battling to liberate Raqqa from the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) on Wednesday denied any ties with a group claiming to be an LGBT sub-faction of a foreign fighter umbrella group in northern Syria.

On Monday, the International Revolutionary People's Guerrilla Forces (IRPGF), an anarchist movement made up of international volunteers in northern Syria, announced what it said was a new LGBT unit to battle "not only Daesh but capitalism and the state."

The unit gave its name as the Queer Insurrection and Liberation Army, or TQILA. The IRPGF is a unit of the International Freedom Battalion, or IBF, a collection of foreign fighters who traveled to northern Syria to battle ISIS alongside the Kurdish militia known as the YPG, or People's Protection Units.

Images of the alleged unit's members flying flags that bore the words "these faggots kill fascists" were shared thousands of times on Twitter, and the announcement was reported widely by western media outlets.

These Faggots Kill Fascists! We shoot back! The Black & Pink and Rainbow flag fly in Raqqa. #Queers smashing the Caliphate. #TQILA #YPJ #YPG pic.twitter.com/eBCssrbjMI

— IRPGF (@IRPGF) July 24, 2017

But Mustafa Bali, a spokesperson for the Kurdish-Arab coalition known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), of which the YPG is a major player, said the unit claimed by the western anarchist IRPGF was not part of the force looking to take Raqqa.

"Social Media sites today reported on the formation of a battalion of homosexuals within the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Raqqa," Bali said in a statement on his Facebook page, as translated by Kurdish news site ARA News.

"We in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), while emphasizing our deep respect for human rights, including the rights of homosexuals, we deny the formation of such a battalion within the framework of our forces and we consider this news to be untrue," he said. YPG spokesperson Redur Xelil did not respond to a request for comment.

In TQILA's statement, the group said it formed the unit as its members had "watched in horror as fascist and extremist forces around the world have attacked the Queer community and murdered countless of our community members citing that they are 'ill,' 'sick,' and 'unnatural.'"

The announcement divided opinion, with some arguing the unit sent a positive message in the fight against ISIS, while other commentators said it was a propaganda attempt on the part of those fighting with the Kurds, or possibly a clever messaging tactic for favorable coverage of the Kurds in the Western media.

Others called into question the unit's creation, given some sections of Kurdish society's attitudes toward the LGBT community, as one activist told The Independent.

In the face of some claims that the unit may not even "exist," the group on Wednesday reaffirmed that it does, but a spokesperson for the IRPGF, speaking to Newsweek, seemed to corroborate Bali's statement, suggesting the SDF had no idea that the announcement about the unit was coming on Monday.

"The heals [comrades] are confused because we made this subgroup in our organization," says IRPGF spokesperson Heval Rojhilat. "We don't need their permission for that since it is within our own autonomous organization."

Rojhilat says despite the SDF denial, the unit and its umbrella group is fully involved on the ground. "The facts are well established that the IRPGF and TQILA as a subgroup exist, the comrades are on the ground fighting, and that the IRPGF is a member of the IFB and continues to battle the enemy in Raqqa."

Rojhilat would not be drawn on the numbers in the group's new unit, citing security concerns.

His comments appear to add weight to the argument that the new unit's ranks are neither substantial nor deeply involved in the street-to-street battles in Raqqa, where the SDF has retaken more than a quarter of neighborhoods in ISIS's de-facto capital.

"I don't necessarily think it is a propaganda, but I don't think there is a large group either," Mutlu Civiroglu, a Syrian-Kurdish analyst based in Washington D.C., tells Newsweek in an email. It is possible that there are few volunteers in Raqqa who are homosexuals and they want this to be known by the world."

"Since ISIS and like-minded groups consider homosexuality a crime, they may want to emphasize their sexual preference, to ensure that everyone notices them," he adds.

The unit's aims appear to be more grounded in ideology, advocating for a gender and social revolution in northern Syria, while telling the world that there are members of LGBT community involved in defeating a group that has executed and stoned men suspected of homosexuality.

"The Queer Insurrection and Liberation Army was formed to advance the struggle of Queers in a region currently undergoing a transformative and inspiring social revolution which includes women's liberation, ecology and communalism," Rojhilat told ARA.

Kurdish forces treat men and women equally, and female fighters play a leading role on the battlefield. Their support of a future democratic, semi-autonomous state known as Rojava in northern Syria has driven dozens of western foreign fighters to join its ranks, mostly against the advice of their home governments.

But while it appears that some members of the LGBT community are indeed involved in the fight against ISIS—their numbers and roles still unclear—it seems unlikely that a rainbow flag will be flying over the center of Raqqa any time soon.