Infographic: Who Are the Kurds?

by Erin Rodewald // July 12, 2017

(This article originally appeared at Philos Project)

It was three years ago — July 4, 2014 — that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi stood in the pulpit of the Al Nuri Grand Mosque in Mosul to declare the creation of an Islamic State caliphate. What followed has been a brutal campaign of blood and destruction across Iraq and Syria.

Today, the caliphate is crumbling — at least geographically. Iraqi and coalition forces have recaptured Mosul and what is left of the Grand Mosque. In Syria, the United States-backed Syrian Democratic Forces have all but liberated the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa.

To be sure, the victories against ISIS belong to many, but at the heart of some of the fiercest fighting has been one steadfast group: the Kurds, a diverse and dispersed people with no sovereign state but a pervasive presence in the Middle East. In Iraq, the Kurds have functioned as a semi-autonomous state since the end of the first Gulf War. In Turkey, a large Kurdish faction has been branded as terrorists. In Syria, Kurdish militias have been key players in the fight against the Islamic State.

The Kurds have introduced both stability and tension to a geopolitically delicate Middle East. In this war-torn region for example, some 1.5 million refugees — including persecuted Christians, Yazidis and other ethnic minorities — have found a safe haven within the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Yet as Kurdistan’s leaders (the Kurdish Regional Government) prepare for a referendum on independence in September, Iraq and neighboring states bristle at the prospect.

For the U.S., its relationship with the Kurds is complex. Daily it must balance its NATO commitments and diplomatic relationship with Turkey — which holds a terrorist opinion of the Kurds — and its strategic alliance with the Kurds in the broader fight against ISIS militants.

Little about the Middle East is easy or understandable, not the least of which is the place and role of the Kurds. The following infographic is provided to offer some clarity about the Kurdish people in today’s Middle East. It is not intended to be comprehensive (for an in-depth study of the Kurds, see Kurdistan Rising? Considerations for Kurds, Their Neighbors and the Region by AEI scholar Michael Rubin). Nor does this infographic take into account external forces, such as Russia or Iran.

It is, instead, an at-a-glance view of a complex and pivotal player in the unfolding drama of the Middle East. Perhaps it will inspire further study.

With the collapse of the caliphate, the international community soon will be required to turn its attention from fighting to rebuilding. Love them or hate them, the 25-to-35-million Kurds whose ancestors have lived and died in the mountainous regions of Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran for centuries will have a voice in that process.