How Paul Manafort is profiting from the Kurdish independence referendum

How Paul Manafort is profiting from the Kurdish independence referendum
Comment: The ex-Trump surrogate is finding refuge from the FBI investigation while lining his pockets and helping his old Russian friends as a lobbyist in Erbil, writes Sam Fouad.
5 min read
26 Sep, 2017
Paul Manafort is putting distance between himself and the Washington press pool [WashPo/Getty]

On September 25, Iraqi Kurds went to the polls in a referendum for independence from Iraq's central government in Baghdad.

The vote for Kurdish independence was the focus of widespread international condemnation and warnings of retaliation not just from Baghdad, Damascus, Ankara, and Tehran, but also the United States and United Nations.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his army stood on the Iraqi-Turkish border ready to do "whatever it takes" to make sure Erbil does not break away from Baghdad.

Because of large Kurdish populations in Turkey, Syria and Iran, fears that the referendum could spark uprisings within those nations is the main reason behind opposition in Ankara, Damascus and Tehran.

Furthermore, opposition from the United Nations and the United States, among other Western nations, stems from the thinking that rising aspirations for Kurdisah independence would hinder the fight against the Islamic State group, fanning sectarian and nationalist flames between nations and between Kurdish and Arab populations.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stated the referendum had "potentially destabilising effects" but expected the sovereignty, territorial integrity and unity of Iraq to remain intact.

The United States further elaborated, stating it "strongly opposes the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government's [KRG] referendum" and that it "urges Iraqi Kurdish leaders to accept the alternative, which is a serious and sustained dialogue with the central government".

While most of the world's governments, aside from Israel's, is firmly against Kurdish independence, one defining factor in the referendum campaign has been the role of foreign consultants.

One such professional lobbyist who has been embroiled in the Kurdish referendum is none other than Paul Manafort, the former chairman of the campaign to elect Donald Trump as president of the United States.

He is also understood to be the focus of an FBI investigation.

As a lobbyist, Manafort has not let ethical, political, or financial conflicts of interest stand in the way of making money

Although not much is known about Manafort's official role in Kurdistan, it is being reported that he is most likely in Erbil right now, in order to help pay his rising legal fees, and as a good excuse to be a long way from the United States and its press pool at a time when Robert Mueller's investigation places him at the centre of the storm.

Manafort's past clients have paid him millions of dollars and include leaders and business tycoons in Ukraine, Russia, the Philippines, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. As a lobbyist, Manafort has not let ethical, political, or financial conflicts of interest stand in the way of making money.

His past dealings have been riddled with legal and ethical dilemmas, including his work in Ukraine and Russia, which is the main reason he's under investigation today. 

Manafort's past work with figures algned with Russian President Vladimir Putin may help explain why he signed on to help with the KRG's referendum in Erbil. The conjunction of Manafort's increasing legal and financial troubles and Ankara and Baghdad threatening to cut off Erbil's oil exports as economic retaliation for the non-binding vote create the perfect opportunity for a man with Manafort's career and expertise.


Having already bypassed Baghdad in 2014 and creating an oil route straight into Ankara, Erbil may be losing one of its main exporters of oil in Turkey if Erdogan decides to act upon his threats.

Rosneft, a major Russian oil company, is increasing its investments in Kurdish gas and oil by agreeing to fund a natural gas pipeline in Kurdistan, reaching a deal with the KRG worth more than $1 billion. The volumes of gas that would be funnelled through this agreement would represent six percent of total European gas demand and 1/6th of Russia's current gas export volumes, making Rosneft the largest supplier of gas to Europe.

Manafort, seen here at the 2016 Republican National
Convention between Donald and Ivanka Trump,
is under FBI investigation for his connections to Moscow

The pipeline would be ready for Kurdish domestic use in 2019 and international exports would begin in 2020.

Kurdistan has some of the largest untapped gas and oil reserves in the world, estimated at 5.66 trillion cubic meters, and 45 billion barrels respectively. 

Rosneft, led by Igor Sechin, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, would become the largest Russian gas company, and would find another key ally in Kurdistan if the KRG does gain independence and the deal goes through smoothly.

Read more: Is oil fuelling the Kurdish referendum?

Sechin, a close friend of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, sees Rosneft as a vehicle of geopolitical influence. Sechin also allegedly offered former Trump ally Carter Page a 19 percent stake in Rosneft in exchange for the lifting of US sanctions on Russia.

The same dossier also claims that Paul Manafort had supposedly asked Page to be a liaison between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.

Manafort can leave the eye of the FBI investigation's storm, help enrich himself as well as Russian and Kurdish allies, and possibly seek protection from extradition

Whatever the case may be, the FBI and the Department of Justice will clear up any connections between the Trump campaign and Russia. However, it seems that Manafort's dealings with the Kurdish referendum and his continued work as a consultant is more about money and oil than it is about nationalism or sympathy with a Kurdish movement.

Manafort seems to be continuing his relationship with Russia in enriching his own pockets and those of his Russian allies, and the KRG seems to be pushing for independence to better utilise their oil and gas reserves.

Manafort can leave the eye of the FBI investigation's storm, help enrich himself as well as Russian and Kurdish allies, and possibly seek protection from extradition in Moscow, Erbil (especially if fully independent), or another city where he has political allies.

Being involved in a deal between Russian oil giants and the Kurdistan Regional Government for a pipeline route would be the perfect temporary fix for Paul Manafort at this moment. Kurdistan gaining full independence - which is still a long shot, given the near global opposition to the referendum - would financially benefit all the main business figures, consultants and politicians involved.

Sam Fouad is a political consultant and a global affairs analyst based in Washington, DC.

Follow him on Twitter: @_saf155

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.