Bashar Assad (Getty Images)
Jim Michaels, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - Pursuing a diplomatic resolution that would allow President Bashar Assad to surrender Syria's chemical weapons stockpile runs the risk of extending his stay in power and undercutting support of rebels who have been fighting his regime with U.S. support, some analysts say.
"Assad is going to come out of this stronger," said Flynt Leverett, a former National Security Council official who is now a professor at Penn State.
No deal has been struck yet and the United States could
still go ahead with a planned cruise missile strike if no agreement is reached, President Obama said in an address to the country Tuesday night.
The president asked Congress to postpone a vote on military action while pursuing diplomacy. But Obama said military action could still be used if diplomacy failed.
The diplomatic initiative was developed by Russia and would be formalized by the United Nations.
Some analysts worry that the United States could get drawn into protracted talks with Russia and Syria, who will use the process as an attempt to bolster Assad's authority, even if he ultimately gives up his regime's chemical weapons.
Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov are scheduled to meet in Geneva Thursday to discuss the initiative.
The process of removing Assad's chemical weapons could take years, giving Assad and his Russian allies time to strengthen Assad's position. The destruction of Libya's main chemical stockpiles were completed only this year, nearly 10 years after Moammar Gadhafi said he would relinquish his nuclear program and chemical weapons stockpile.
During that time, Assad will likely be able to continue battling rebels. In recent months his forces have made progress on the battlefield and will be able to consolidate gains without chemical weapons.
"In a sense, it gives the regime permission to fire as much as it wants" if it doesn't use chemical weapons, said Jeffrey White, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former Defense Intelligence Agency official.
Daniel Serwer, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and scholar at the Middle East Institute, said the administration's narrow focus on chemical weapons prevents them from addressing the broader issues, such as pursuing a post-Assad political settlement, stabilizing the region and keeping extremists out of the country.
"You're certainly not advancing the cause of bringing him down unless you broaden the focus," Serwer said.
Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, acknowledged there is a risk in pursuing a diplomatic resolution.
"I think we have to take steps not to increase his longevity in this process," Levin said Wednesday.
Opposition leaders have opposed the Russian proposal and had counted on a military strike, even if it was of short duration.
Obama said the purpose of a strike would be limited to degrading Assad's military capability and deterring him from further use of chemical weapons.
Still, the rebels had hoped that even a limited strike would shift the momentum on the ground. In recent months Assad had blunted rebel advances in some key areas, though neither side seemed to have a decisive advantage.
Analysts say rebels would be hard pressed to shift the balance of power without outside intervention. "They can't win on the battlefield," Leverett said of the rebels.
The removal of chemical weapons would probably not significantly hurt Assad's ability to take the fight to the opposition, which is considerably fractured and lacks the ability to coordinate attacks, analysts said.
"Assad doesn't need chemical weapons," Leverett said. "In the last few months he's been doing pretty well against the opposition."
However, Assad's military is alleged to have resorted to chemical weapons Aug. 21 in a strike that sparked the latest controversy, suggesting that it sees the weapons as a critical asset. The regime is accused of using the nerve agent sarin in a suburb of Damascus where the government was struggling to put down rebels.
Talks about chemical weapons would not necessarily complicate efforts to back the rebels and oust Assad, some experts said.
Jonah Blank, an analyst at RAND Corp., a think tank with long ties to the military, pointed out that the United States negotiated with Moammar Gadhafi in 2003 over the removal of chemical weapons but Gadhafi was later deposed in 2011 with help from the United States.
"We struck a deal with Moammar Gadhafi (but) that did not prevent us from removing him from power," Blank said.