CBRN Assessment

US probably forced to escalate against Syrian president’s use of nerve agent to maintain deterrent credibility

10 April 2018

Key Points

  • We assess that the Syrian government’s use of a suspected nerve agent in Douma was motivated by a desire to test and ultimately discredit US deterrence in the Syrian arena, as well as to speed up the government takeover of the remaining insurgent-held areas.
  • The United States is likely to opt for an escalation against President Assad to reassert the credibility of US deterrence, not just in Syria, but globally, in light of increasing Russian assertiveness, Iranian expansionism, and North Korea. President Trump implied that some other action, presumably diplomatic, was likely to be taken against Assad’s backers, Russia and Iran.
  • The most likely US military response will include cruise missile strikes against multiple targets associated with Syria’s use of chemical weapons, including suspected production and storage facilities, and delivery systems.
  • The key risk involved in such a response is that of unintended escalation with Russia, given the widespread presence of Russian service personnel at Syrian military sites.


US President Donald Trump announced on 9 April that he would decide in the next 24–48 hours on how to respond to the Syrian government’s alleged use of nerve agent in the Damascus suburb of Douma at the weekend.

US President Trump made the remarks after an emergency United Nations Security Council meeting was called on 9 April in response to reports of a chemical attack on 7 April in Douma, in the eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus, in which the Syrian-American Medical Society says that more than 500 people were hospitalised with symptoms “indicative of exposure to a chemical agent”.

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