As President Obama alerts Congress that he is sending more US combat troops into Iraq, other countries are flying in. The US has been joined by Iran and Russia in the skies over Iraq as the Maliki government in Baghdad tries to hold on to power. Though the US has confirmed flying drones, the other nations are using more traditional combat aircraft.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and his Shiite dominated government is backed by Shiite Iran who has just deployed the seven Su-25 Frogfoot attack planes to Iraq to take on ISIS and local Sunni rebels. Iran has reportedly already been bombing ISIS forces in Iraq since June 21st. The Maliki government represents the biggest political foothold Iran has had in Iraq for generations. The prospect of ISIS in taking over Baghdad and integrating all of Iraq into the new caliphate is unacceptable to Iran and likely grounds for war, not something ISIS would oppose given their view that Shiite Muslims are heretics.

Russia is also getting involved in the fight after completing a deal with the Maliki government for 12 Su-25 fighter jets. It has been speculated that Russia pilots may have to fly the planes for the Iraqi government which lacks technical expertise.

Meanwhile, as the air war heats up in central and south Iraq the north prepares to secede. Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani told the BBC he plans to hold a referendum on independence within months.

“Everything that’s happened recently shows that it’s the right of Kurdistan to achieve independence,” Mr Barzani told the BBC.

“From now on, we won’t hide that that’s our goal. Iraq is effectively partitioned now. Are we supposed to stay in this tragic situation the country’s living? It’s not me who will decide on independence. It’s the people. We’ll hold a referendum and it’s a matter of months.”

The logic of the strategy is pretty sound. Due to the breakdown of the central government and its control of large parts of Iraq, the Kurds have not only been essentially self-governing they have seized historic and lucrative land and resources such as the oil fields of Kirkuk. They have sold that oil to Turkey without Baghdad’s involvement and even recently closed a deal with Israel. They already have de facto independence, why not de jure?

Holding Iraq together under the borders drawn by the British Empire seems increasingly impossible.