Jim Michaels, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - A deal allowing Bashar Assad to surrender Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles 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.
Instead of an attack that could weaken Syria's military, particularly its ability to use chemical weapons, negotiations with Assad's government could strengthen the Syrian leader, Leverett and others say.
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 plan was developed by Russia and would be formalized by the United Nations.
Analysts say the risk is that Russia and Syria will be tough negotiators who will use the talks as an attempt to build protection for Assad in return for giving up his regime's chemical weapons, attempting to trade chemical weapons for allowing Assad to stay in power.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has served as Russia's permanent representative to the United Nations and understands the institution well, Leverett said. He has a reputation as a tough negotiator.
The process of removing Assad's chemical weapons could take years, giving Assad and his Russian allies time. The destruction of Libya's main chemical stockpiles were only completed this year, nearly 10 years after Moammar Gadhafi said he would relinquish his nuclear program and chemical weapons stockpiles.
During that time, Assad will likely be able to continue battling rebels while dealing with weapons inspectors and attempting to consolidate his power.
"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
Opposition leaders have opposed the Russian proposal and had counted on a military strike. Now they worry that talks could only serve to bolster Assad's legitimacy.
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 two sides have been fighting more than two years in a bloody stalemate that has led to 100,000 deaths.
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 did resort 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 used 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 Gadhafi in 2003 over the removal of chemical weapons but he 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.