The Latest Chapter of Syria’s Media War: A ‘Gay Unit’ Fighting the Islamic State

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 31 July 2017

Earlier this month, it was announced that an LGBT military unit had been formed to fight the Islamic State (IS) in its Syrian “capital”, Raqqa city. There does appear to be such a unit in existence, though it is militarily inconsequential and likely has fewer than a dozen members, all of them foreign. The unit’s primary intention was to bolster the ongoing media-political campaign of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is selling itself to Western audiences as a “progressive” ideological ally in the Middle East. This is the latest chapter in a conflict where the significance of the media war has few precedents.

The International Revolutionary People’s Guerrilla Forces (IRPGF) announced the formation of a subunit on 24 July:

We, the International Revolutionary People’s Guerrilla Forces (IRPGF) formally announce the formation of The Queer Insurrection and Liberation Army (TQILA), a subgroup of the IRPGF, comprised of LGBT*QI+ comrades as well as others who seek to smash the gender binary and advance the women’s revolution as well as the broader gender and sexual revolution.

TQILA’s members have 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 images of gay men being thrown off roofs and stoned to death by Daesh was something we could not idly watch. It is not only Daesh whose hatred for Queer, Trans*, and other non-binary peoples leads to religiously motivated hatred and attacks. Christian conservatives in the global northwest have also attacked LGBT*QI peoples in an attempt to silence and erase their existence. We want to emphasize that queerphobia, homophobia, and trans*phobia are not inherent to Islam or any other religion. In fact, we know many Muslims, Jews, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, etc., who are accepting and welcoming of uniqueness and non-conforming people and some who are even Queer themselves. We stand in solidarity with them against fascism, tyranny, and oppression. Additionally, we criticize and struggle against the conservative and feudal anti-Queer sentiments within the revolutionary Left, both here and abroad.

Our commitment to struggling against authority, patriarchy, oppressive heteronormativity, queer/homo-phobia, and trans*phobia are strengthened by the revolutionary advances and gains of the Kurdish women’s struggle. The fact that Jineologi classes debate gender constructs and sexuality further highlights the advances of the revolution in Rojava and all of Kurdistan with women pushing for revolutionary advances at a rapid pace. It is this necessity and desire to strengthen the gains of the women’s revolution while advancing the Queer struggle that has motivated Queer comrades of the IRPGF to form TQILA.


The IRPGF, created in March, is one of the foreign fighter factions within the People’s Protection Forces (YPG), the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD). The YPG and PYD are the names that the PKK uses when it operates on Syrian territory. The foreign fighters within the YPG/PKK are now, after initially consisting mostly of military veterans and more apolitical people, composed in the majority of communist and other hard-Left militants, with some of those from southern Europe tied to Left-wing terrorist groups.

The creation of an LGBT unit amid Syria’s hecatomb and the ascendancy of religious extremism naturally attracted a great deal of attention—as was its goal. The formation of TQILA—pronounced (not accidentally) tequila—is primarily a media operation, helping to brand the YPG/PKK, even though it runs an authoritarian regime that has recently viciously cracked down on Kurdish opponents, as a “progressive” and Western-friendly outfit. It is hoped by the YPG/PKK that rebranding in this way will also conceal its deep ideological animus to the American-led West, something still taught in YPG indoctrination centres. This phenomenon is sometimes called “pinkwashing”, where repressive governments like that in Cuba—and indeed Syria—lay claim to social liberalism as a means of deflecting criticism from Western audiences.

The ubiquitous pictures of female fighters from the Women’s Protection Forces (YPJ) is an especially notable part of the PKK’s messaging campaign to the West, and the TQILA episode builds off that. But this latest part of the PKK’s propaganda offensive aimed at Western audiences is most similar to what the PKK has done in Sinjar, the area of Iraq, west of Mosul, on the Syrian border, that IS besieged in 2014, leaving Yazidis starving on the mountains.

It was the YPG/PKK which broke the siege of Sinjar Mountain; the group then remained. In Sinjar, the PKK has set up a base, alarming Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). To legitimize this power-play, the PKK has instrumentalized the same sense of righteousness that attends TQILA: the PKK presents its local militias, the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS) and Yazidi Women’s Units (YJE), as vehicles by which the Yazidis can take revenge against IS for the destruction and enslavement visited on their community—and undoubtedly many in the ranks are sincere. But the YBS/YJE serve a broader PKK’s strategic program, which includes providing Iran with a lever to manipulate Iraqi politics against the Iraqi Kurds and a gateway to flood Shi’a jihadists and other resources into Syria to defend Bashar al-Asad. The PKK’s collaboration with Iran (and Russia) rather qualifies its advocacy for homosexual rights given the notorious situation for homosexuals in both countries, and the conduct of Iran’s proxy militias in Iraq against those even perceived to be homosexual, which has been even more cruel.

The claim that TQILA is a whole-cloth fabrication is plausible, though hardly certain. If TQILA does exist and includes many more people than appear in the photograph of the unit at the top of the page, it would be very surprising. (TQILA has insisted that it cannot reveal its numbers for “security reasons”.) The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the ostensible-coalition between the YPG/PKK and other groups of which IRPGF is part, has denied that TQILA is within the SDF. This is almost certainly to avoid even further antagonizing an Arab population in Raqqa that has—recent developments notwithstanding—grave reservations about the SDF/PKK.

A spokesman for TQILA, Heval Rojhilat, told ARA News:

Many of our hevals [comrades] were excited and happy that we brought a rainbow flag. Remember that part of the ideology training of the YPJ/YPG includes Jineology, which speaks about gender as a social construct and about sexuality in radical ways. Some of the hevals have even read Judith Butler and Michel Foucault. … [A]s part of the IRPGF, we are the fourth major component of the [Internationalist Freedom Battalion (EOT)] along with MLKP, BÖG and TIKKO. All of which have guerrilla forces in not only Rojava but Bashur, Bakur, and Turkey. … We believe as Queers in the Middle East that one of the most radical acts we can do is to announce our existence to people and governments who have and continue to claim that we do not exist.

“Jineology” is the “science of women”, a concept developed, unsurprisingly, by the PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, in a 2003 work, ‘The Sociology of Freedom’. While Jineology is presented as a great step forward in the emancipation of womankind, the PKK’s actual view of women is somewhat different. Beginning in the early 1990s—and continuing up to the present—young women have been suicide bombers for the YPG/PKK, not always voluntarily. The presence of females in its ranks was used by the PKK to shame males into joining. And the PKK’s ability to recruit women among the largely conservative Kurdish population in Turkey was enabled partly by coercion—it was a brave family that risked being called “counter-revolutionary” by preventing their daughter joining the PKK—and mostly by the PKK’s promise to guard the woman’s virginity. The PKK still bans sexual relations within its ranks, and uses the death penalty to enforce it. Whether this applies to homosexual relations is not yet clear.

The claim that all of the foreign fighter units gathered within the EOT “have guerrilla forces in … Turkey” will hardly help relations between the Turkish government and the YPG/PKK-run areas in Syria. YPG fighters, including the foreigners, have made a habit of threatening to carry their war into Turkey. In this, the fighters echo the statements of PKK executive committee members, who have stated: “The PYD is now conducting the revolution in [northern Syria] to build a democratic society. Afterwards will come the time of northern Kurdistan [southern Turkey], and so on”.

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UPDATE: IRPGF as a whole was expelled from the Raqqa operation on 5 August, according to EOT, because “we need less empty propaganda, [and] more fighting”.

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