WASHINGTON — To some, it seemed like a gaffe. To others, an offhand comment.
It could have been either, or both, but the ultimatum that Secretary of State John F. Kerry issued on Monday morning to President Bashar Assad of Syria reflected a deeper discussion that had been taking place behind the scenes over the past year.
President Obama and President Vladimir Putin of Russia first discussed the idea of securing Syria’s chemical weapons about a year ago when the two leaders met in Mexico’s Los Cabos during the G-20 summit, according to a senior administration official. That is a much earlier time frame than has been previously reported.
The details add new context to a dizzying few days of diplomacy during which the United States teetered from calling for US-led strikes to considering a potential nonmilitary solution backed by Russia.
These discussions took place quietly, even as US-Russian relations took a dive, with the United States outraged that Russia harbored Edward Snowden, who has leaked secrets about American intelligence programs. Putin last week said Kerry was lying to Congress after he downplayed Al Qaeda’s presence in Syria and said the opposition was becoming more moderate.
Although the relationship between top US and Russian officials has been icy, high-level talks continued for months.
In April, during Kerry’s first trip to Moscow as secretary of state, he spoke with Putin about securing Syria’s chemical weapons. He continued the conversation over a long dinner with Sergey Lavrov, the foreign minister of Russia. At the time, they discussed replicating the potential model of Libya’s nuclear program, which in 2003 was removed under an international agreement.
The discussions at the time were focused on ways to lay the groundwork for broader peace talks that would end the Syrian civil war.
But when pro-Assad forces were accused of using chemical weapons on his own people on Aug. 21, the dynamic changed. Part of the reason for the harder line from Obama was because he established the use of chemical weapons as a “red line” that would spur military action.
With the United States calling for a strong international response, and considering military strikes to punish Assad, Russia became more engaged.
“There is no question that the seriousness of Russia’s interest in playing a role in securing the chemical weapons increased following the attack,” said the senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private conversations.
Putin last Friday approached Obama during the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg. The conversation began with small talk, and then the two leaders retreated to the corner of the room, pulling up chairs and conversing while other world leaders watched.
They spoke for nearly 30 minutes, entirely about Syria, according to the senior administration official. They still disagreed on what role Assad would have in a future Syrian government — Obama has called for his ouster, while Putin has defended him — but they agreed to cooperate on an effort to secure chemical weapons stockpiles.
Putin broached the idea about reaching an international agreement to remove the chemical weapons. Obama agreed that it could be an avenue for cooperation and said Kerry and Lavrov should try to shape a proposal.
Putin agreed to relay the message to Lavrov.
Kerry, meanwhile, was getting ready to depart on a three-stop trip to Europe to continue building support for US-led strikes on Syria.
Susan Rice, the president’s national security adviser, called Kerry and updated him on the discussion that Obama had with Putin. They discussed having Kerry and Lavrov speak about it in the coming days.
Rice and Kerry were skeptical and unsure if a credible proposal was possible, but the Russians, a key Syrian ally, were increasingly showing a willingness to play a facilitating role.
Discussions between US and Russian officials about averting a military strike had been ongoing, but the pace quickened on Monday, a day of extraordinary diplomatic activity. The remark that triggered it all came when Kerry appeared to offer an ultimatum to the Syrian president during a press conference in London.
“Turn it over, all of it, without delay and allow the full and total accounting,” Kerry said, in response to a question from a CBS News reporter about what Assad could do to avoid military strikes.
He seemed to dismiss the proposal almost as soon as he mentioned it.
“But he isn’t about to do it,” Kerry said. “And it can’t be done.”
State Department officials quickly issued a statement that Kerry’s remark was not intended as a formal ultimatum. Kerry, they said, was merely making a “rhetorical” answer – and articulating a deal that was so outlandish that it would probably never happen. The effort by the State Department to try to walk back the impact of Kerry’s remark helped create the impression that he had committed a gaffe.
But then Obama’s administration publicly embraced the idea. Even though Kerry had not made a formal proposal, his remark was consistent with the early stages of a discussion taking place within the administration, according to a senior State Department official.
“I didn’t misspeak,” Kerry said during testimony before the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. “I was asked about it. I responded because I was asked.”
After the Monday press conference in London, Kerry spoke with Lavrov for about 15 minutes. The United States was not ready to embrace a proposal from Russia, Kerry told him, but it would examine one.
Shortly after, Lavrov announced that Russia wanted to play a role in securing chemical weapons.
As Kerry’s plane flew to Washington, he spoke with Rice. There was a flurry of diplomatic efforts going on around the globe. The Syrian foreign minister, who was in Moscow, said he welcomed the Russian proposal.
The French, the British, and officials at the United Nations also were enthusiastic about it.
By the end of the day, Obama was cautiously embracing it.
“We’re going to run this to the ground to see if we can arrive at something . . . enforceable and serious,” he said in an interview with CNN.
Russia said it would develop a plan that would force the Syrians to turn over their chemical weapons to the international community so that they can be destroyed.
“This can’t become a process of delay and avoidance,” Kerry said during his congressional testimony on Tuesday. “We are not waiting for long. The [United Nations] Security Council can’t be allowed to become a debating society.”
But the outcome is still uncertain, and negotiations are continuing. The State Department announced Tuesday night that Kerry plans to fly to Geneva to meet with Lavrov on Thursday in hopes that a deal, which appeared to come about in such an unlikely fashion, can be consummated.
Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com.