In a word, probably yes. Once ethnic cleansing has begun (it is occurring now in the coastal hills as Alawite regions, encouraged by the regime of Assad, are massacring Sunnis), it takes some years to overcome distrust and conflict. But the examples of Bosnia and Rwanda show that even after horrible massacres, a country can function once again if good leadership can be found.
The real puzzle in Syria is who can take charge of the opposition and a post-Assad regime? Right now, the civilian opposition government in exile is riven with factional rivalries. The militia leadership in the country is increasingly dominated by jihadists, who have both financial support from Saudi Arabia and the gulf and the military experience won in Iraq to be effective. The tilt in the entire Middle East is toward stronger Islamist regimes, as people come to identify Islam with nationalism in opposition to past imperial and western domination.
In the absence of a less extreme Islamist leadership, arming the Syrian rebels will simply hasten the conversion of Syria into a headquarters for Islamic jihad, posing an even greater threat to Israel, Lebanon, and eventually the US.
Is there anything that can be done? Yes — possibly. A regional solution in which the US, Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia agree to support the rebels AND call for an international peace-keeping force to prevent humanitarian disasters and oversee initial elections (as in East Timor, but with a larger and longer international presence), might work. Such a strong international commitment not only to arm and support the rebels but supervise a post-conflict peace and regime-building might undercut the jihadist leadership. It would certainly undercut the Assad regime’s attractiveness to those on the fence and thus prompt more defections that would hasten its demise.
Yet I worry that the international community will shirk from supporting such a vitally necessary but expensive peace keeping/state reconstruction operation. If the talks in Geneva (which will include regional players plus Russia and the US) focus only on getting Assad to step down, they will likely fail, as the increasingly obvious consequence of Assad leaving will be chaos and sectarian massacres.
As with President Kagame in Rwanda, who has insisted on a national Rwanda identity, someone in Syria will have to impress upon his or her followers a Syrian national identity, which hitherto has been weak, despite the long historical existence of Damascus and Aleppo as centers of civilization. Under the aegis of UN peacekeepers, this will be easier, but it needs to be done by any means.
So here is the requirement for a hopeful outcome in Syria: (1) regional agreement to support the rebels; (2) commitment to support international peacekeepers following a regime change; (3) leadership among Syrians themselves that promotes a united Syria and post-sectarian national identity.
That’s a very tall order right now; but it doesn’t mean the world shouldn’t try. Letting the current situation grind on means more deaths and risks spreading the conflagration to other countries throughout the region.