Traffic signs in Arabic, English, Kurdish, and Turkmen in Kirkuk, December 2, 2010.
Ako Rasheed / Courtesy Reuters

The surge of ethnic and sectarian strife in Syria and across the Middle East has led a number of analysts to predict the coming breakup of many Arab states. This potential upending of the region’s territorial order has come to be known as “the end of Sykes-Picot,” a reference to the secret 1916 Anglo-French agreement to divide up the Middle Eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire into British and French zones of control. Because the European treaties that created new Arab states in the aftermath of World War I upheld the outlines of that agreement, Sykes-Picot became the convenient shorthand for the map that colonial powers imposed on the region, one that has remained essentially constant to the present day.

With bloodshed from Aleppo to Baghdad to Beirut, it is indeed tempting to predict the violent demise of Sykes-Picot. But although the worst fighting is spilling over borders and pushing

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