As the United States weighs possible military strikes on Syria in response to a suspected chemical weapons attack, it has to consider a critical question: What would happen next?
A broad cross-section of experts on the region agree: A missile strike could worsen the war in Syria and usher in a host of new problems.
"The key issue is not the tactics of the strikes, but the strategic aftermath," says Anthony Cordesman, a former Defense Department official now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Most experts believe a strike would target the Syrian regime's weapons arsenal -- not suspected sites of chemical weapons stockpiles. The latter would be "the worst possible option," and could spread chemicals downwind, says Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former commander of the British military's chemical defense regiment.
U.S. officials have said strikes on command bunkers, airfields or the artillery batteries and rocket launchers used to fire chemical projectiles are among the possibilities being considered.
CNN asked analysts to discuss what could follow.
Al Qaeda, extremists emboldened?
"A limited attack could suppress morale among regime forces and encourage defections and splits," says Jeffrey White of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The opposition would be emboldened -- including the al Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front, analysts say.
"Supporting the opposition at this point would be like French-kissing al Qaeda," says Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official now with the American Enterprise Institute. "If the opposition wins, al Qaeda will win power."
"There is a real risk that destabilizing the Assad regime could enable the jihadist and al Qaeda-affiliated rebel groups," agrees Erica Borghard, author of the policy analysis "Arms and Influence in Syria: The Pitfalls of Greater U.S. Involvement."
"These groups are militarily more capable than the rebels currently receiving U.S. support. "
It would be difficult for the United States to target al-Nusra infrastructure as part of a missile strike campaign because al-Nusra does not operate with clear "command-and-control assets" like the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Borghard says.
Syria steps up attacks?
Many analysts believe a U.S. attack would be aimed largely at making a statement that using chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war is unacceptable -- and that President Barack Obama is serious about his "red line."
The attack would be unlikely to severely damage al-Assad, analysts say. But a limited attack brings its own dangers.
"Doing something cosmetic would be worse than doing nothing at all," says Christopher Harmer, senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.
It would send a message to al-Assad "that he has relative immunity from us, that he can continue to do whatever he wants short of massive chemical attacks on civilians," Harmer said in a CNN interview.
Some other analysts fear al-Assad would respond with new chemical weapons attacks.
"Damaging his air force and known military installations would force him to consider his more extreme options for regime survival," including chemical weapons to quell rebellions, says Ed Husain of the Council on Foreign Relations. "Syria is now a fight to the death for both sides."
More than 100,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict -- the vast majority through conventional weapons, according to the United Nations. Rebels officials have said 1,300 people were killed in a recent chemical weapons attack; the United Nations has said hundreds, perhaps more than a thousand, were killed.
The United States insists Syria was behind the attack, but "there is no absolute certainty," Husain notes in a CNN Opinion column.
Syria insists it has not used chemical weapons, and blames rebels.
If rebels did carry out the attack "to bait America into the conflict, then U.S. firepower would be futile," says Husain. "No amount of surgical strikes on government facilities will prevent non-state actors from further use of these weapons."
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