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'Ride it out' or 'a killing spree': Experts question Assad's next move

Bashar Assad remained defiant after his US counterpart Barack Obama decided to seek congressional approval for a military strike, reiterating his country was ready for any intervention. SANA via AFP - Getty Images

Syrian President Bashar Assad may have gained some extra time to maneuver after the White House decided to ask Congress for authorization to strike his government in retaliation for alleged use of chemical weapons, but whether the enigmatic leader will use those days to try to tighten his grip on power is unclear, according to experts.

Assad has options, said Col. Jack H. Jacobs, a retired Army officer and NBC News consultant. "If he were smart he'd do nothing – not take aggressive action," Jacobs said. "He's not going to do that. He's never done it before. He's probably going to take this opportunity and end up killing lots of civilians."

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The reason, according to Jacobs, is that Assad has already calculated that Congress will almost certainly authorize a U.S. military strike, no matter what he does in the next 10 days or so.

Assad "wouldn't assume" that Congress will vote down approval for an attack. "The risk of being wrong is very unpleasant."

Still, Jacobs added, "it's hard to get inside [Assad's] head."

Secretary of State John Kerry, who made an impassioned case on Friday for U.S. intervention, said on Meet the Press that samples collected from the suspected Aug. 21 chemical attack in Syria have tested positive for sarin gas. Kerry called Assad a “thug and a murderer” on Friday, citing a White House intelligence report saying that 1,429 people were killed in the chemical weapons attack.

In a surprising reversal on Saturday, President Barack Obama said he would first seek approval from Congress for the use of military force in response.

"If I were a betting man – the odds are marginally against [another chemical strike]," Jacobs said. "But that means there's still a substantial likelihood that he might."

Professor Stephen M. Walt of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government also said he does not anticipate Assad using chemical weapons while American legislators and the White House mull their options.

"I would be surprised is Assad's forces used chemical weapons while the United States is debating military action, because it would make a U.S. response inevitable," Walt said in an email.

Andrew J. Tabler, senior fellow at D.C.-based think tank the Washington Institute specializing in U.S.-Syria policy, said that Obama's decision has given Assad "about 10 days of a killing spree." It has also sent a disheartening message to the people of Syria, he said.

"It will be used to show the Syrian people that no one is coming to their rescue and that all is doomed and they should give in to the government," Tabler said.

Thomas Donnelly, resident fellow and co-director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies in Washington, D.C., takes a different view of what Assad will do with the extra time, saying the Syrian president will want to avoid adding to the outrage that erupted over his regime's alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians on Aug. 21.

If Assad's "a cool customer he'll ride it out," he said. "The worst thing he could do is to provoke us into a serious military involvement."

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Many experts say that whether or not Assad steps up attacks internally, he will likely use the extra time before a potential strike to hide key military assets, such as missile batteries and aircraft.

Jacobs says Assad can't afford to take any pieces off the table while in the middle of protracted civil war against a stubborn and resilient opponent.

"He's not going to fly his planes to Russia," he said. "He's kind of stuck."

U.S. military officials have said that the delay in a possible strike against the Assad regime will not lessen its ability to do so if the order comes.

And Obama stressed Saturday that American warships in the Mediterranean Sea still stood poised to strike regime targets at any time.

NBC News' Tracy Jarrett and Jim Miklaszewski contributed to this report.

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