Kurdish Peshmerga fighters observe the front line with Islamic State, in Gwar, northern Iraq, in 2014. (Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters)
Opinion writer

This month marks the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot Agreement that formed Iraq, Syria and the other fragile nations of the modern Middle East. The past few weeks have provided dramatic new evidence, if more were needed, that the old colonial framework created by Britain and France isn’t working.

Iraq and Syria are coming apart: Iraq is effectively divided into three warring regions: a Sunni area ruled by the Islamic State, a Kurdish mini-state that’s nearly autonomous, and a zone from the capital south that’s controlled by the Shiite-led regime. A similar fragmented structure exists in Syria. Central government in both countries has vanished.

From his mountain headquarters here overlooking Irbil, Kurdish national security adviser Masrour Barzani offers a frank judgment in an interview: “For 100 years, a system has been in place in Iraq that has now failed. Iraq was never built on the right foundations. It was built to serve the interests of the great powers. A hundred years of failure is enough. We need to look at new options.”

A similar sense that Iraq and the region are at a crossroads is expressed by Barham Salih , a former prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government and former deputy prime minister of Iraq. We talked in Sulaymaniyah, 90 miles southeast of here, where he now runs the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani.

After months of tensions, the political crisis in Iraq escalated with anti-government protesters storming into parliament. This is why they are protesting. (Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

“This is not about a government reshuffle,” argues Salih. “The post-2003 political system put in place by the U.S. is unraveling. This is a new era. The choice is between a chaotic breakdown into warlordism or, possibly, a new constitutional arrangement that would create a more decentralized, confederal Iraq.”

During my visit to Iraq, I heard similar views from every Kurdish leader I met, and from some Sunnis, too. Iraq and Syria are at an inflection point, they argued. The immediate priority is to defeat the Islamic State. But the United States should be talking with its allies about a future political structure — an alternative to the “lines in the sand” drawn by Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, and to the United States’ post-2003 misadventure in neocolonialism.

For a model of how the United States should think creatively about fixing this catastrophe, look at American policy in 1944. Victory in World War II was still a blood-soaked year away. But President Franklin D. Roosevelt had the foresight to begin thinking carefully about the institutions that would maintain peace and prosperity after the war. By the end of that year, detailed planning had begun for the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the United Nations.

Here’s a challenge for the rest of President Obama’s term and the first months in office of the next president: Start building the foundations for a new order in the Middle East that can provide better security, governance and economic well-being — for Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, and for the smaller minorities that are interwoven in the fabric of the region. Help the peoples of this shattered region build and maintain governance structures that work.

The Kurds may force the question soon, with a referendum that will ask their people whether they want an independent Iraqi Kurdistan. The United States should support such a process, but if — and only if — it’s created through a negotiated agreement with the central government in Baghdad. Many Sunni and Shiite leaders in Iraq have told me privately they favor a new constitution for a confederal Iraq that would include a Sunni regional government, as well as a Kurdish one. A similar negotiation for a loose federal or confederal Syria should be part of the political transition there, too.

Trying to hammer the pieces into unitary states just won’t work. America tried and failed in Iraq. Now, Iran, too, finds itself unable to maintain order there. That’s the lesson of last week’s mayhem in the Shiite-dominated Iraqi parliament, which was largely an internal Shiite-on-Shiite quarrel.

“The Iranians are making the same mistakes the U.S. did after 2003,” explains one prominent Iraqi. “They went in too heavy. They thought they could do it all. But the Shiite monolith is breaking down.”

Fixing a shattered Middle East is the work of a generation. But it’s past time for the United States, Europe, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran to start thinking urgently with the people of Syria and Iraq about new structures that will finally cure the mistakes and injustices of a century ago.

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