Pinkwashing Syria's War? Why the 'First LGBT Unit Fighting ISIS' is Not What it Seems

Published July 26th, 2017 - 12:40 GMT
"These Faggots Kill Fascists! We shoot back! The Black & Pink and Rainbow flag fly in Raqqa. #Queers smashing the Caliphate" this photo was captioned on Twitter (IRPGF)
"These Faggots Kill Fascists! We shoot back! The Black & Pink and Rainbow flag fly in Raqqa. #Queers smashing the Caliphate" this photo was captioned on Twitter (IRPGF)

The creation of the “first LGBT unit fighting ISIS in Syria” has been widely reported across social media and in Western outlets in the last few days.

The formation of the Queer Insurrection and Liberation Army (TQILA) was announced on Monday with the following photo, which has so far been liked over 8,000 times.

It was tweeted by the International Revolutionary People's Guerrilla Forces (IRPGF), an anarchist movement involved in the battle against Daesh in Raqqa, eastern Syria.

They also issued a statement saying that TQILA was founded after 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.’”

It continues: “The images of gay men being thrown off roofs and stoned to death by Daesh was something we could not idly watch.”

Pinkwashing Syria's war?

It’s a great story. LGBT individuals defiantly fighting Daesh, an organization well-known for throwing gay men off roofs and for claiming a brutal attack on an LGBT nightclub in the US.

Still, there is something a little off here.

What Western media coverage does not dwell on is that this new unit is in fact made up largely, if not exclusively, by “foreign fighters”. IRPGF in itself is a unit in the International Freedom Battalion (IFB), set up in April and consisting of volunteer combatants mostly from Europe and North America.

Numbers in TQILA are not known, nor is the proportion of LGBT fighters within the unit. A Newsweek article indicated that a TQILA spokesperson, Heval Rojhilat, would not give numbers for security reasons. 

"Many of our comrades are within the LGBT*QI+ community," Rojhilat told the US-based publication. "We are already fighting in Raqqa."

While the foundation of TQILA has been largely praised in Western media outlets, some in the Middle East have criticized the group for “pinkwashing”.

This is a term used to refer to the activities of an organization that frames itself as an LGBT ally in order to gloss over its negative behavior elsewhere.

Pinkwashing is an accusation often directed at the Israeli government, which emphasizes its supposed good record on LGBT rights while simultaneously violating Palestinian rights.

It is no coincidence that TQILA will be fighting alongside the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-Arab coalition which is the main US ally against Daesh in Syria. SDF’s assault on Daesh-held Raqqa is being supported by US-led airstrikes.

Promoting the SDF as a group supporting LGBT rights, at least by association, helps to justify US backing of these non-state armed groups to liberals in the West.

While foreign fighters can afford to promote themselves as an LGBT unit for a political purpose, most LGBT Syrians continue to face an uphill battle for their rights, and such “pinkwashing” arguably does nothing to help them in practice.

If there was any doubt that the formation of the group was, at least to some extent, an international promotional campaign, the IRPFG has tweeted the TQILA photo to a large number of other Twitter accounts, mostly belonging to Western anarchist and activist groups.

The statement of TQILA’s foundation was even translated into Spanish:

Even the name is Western-oriented, pronounced “tequila”, a drink that most among SDF’s Muslim-majority troops will not drink:

Fake news?

At a deeper level, some have suggested TQILA does not exist, or at least is not associated with the SDF. Mustafa Bali, who identifies himself as the director of the Media Center of the Syrian Democratic Forces, posted this to his Facebook page late on Tuesday.


Today, social media discussed the formation of an LGBT unit consisting of international fighters within the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the city of Raqqa. We in the SDF, while stressing our deep respect for human rights and public freedoms, deny the formation of such a unit within our forces, and we consider this news to be false.

Mustafa Bali

Director of the Media Center of the Syrian Democratic Forces

The IRPGF responded to “doubts and debates about the authenticity of the previous photo” with a fresh image, apparently featuring the International Freedom Battalion commander, Heval Mahir, a “supporter of Queer liberation”.

Still, this does not explain why the SDF does not seem to have been made aware of the existence of the new allied unit.

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