U.S. and Russian officials confirmed Tuesday that they have had discussions about securing Syria’s chemical arms going back months, including in a meeting between Presidents Obama and Putin at the G-20 summit last week, and that the idea was not born out of a stray comment made by US Secretary of State John Kerry at a London press conference Monday.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday that he and President Obama had “indeed discussed” the idea during a meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia last week.
He and Obama agreed “to instruct Secretary of State [John Kerry] and Foreign Minister [Sergey Lavrov] to get in touch” and “try to move this idea forward,” Putin told Russia Today in an interview Tuesday.
A US official confirmed this basic account Tuesday.
Obama and Putin, meeting in a corner for 20-30 minutes last Friday (Sept. 5), “agreed that a political solution is ultimately necessary to resolve the civil war, but we continue to have differences about Assad’s role in that transition,” a senior US administration official said Tuesday. “However, they did agree that we could cooperate on the issue of chemical weapons – specifically, an effort to secure [chemical weapons] stockpiles, as both the US and Russia believe that they pose a significant danger, within Syria and beyond.”
“Putin broached the idea that had been discussed in previous meeting about reaching an international agreement to remove chemical weapons,” the US official said. “Obama agreed that could be an avenue for cooperation, and said that Kerry and Lavrov should follow up on the concept to shape a potential proposal. Putin agreed to relay that to Lavrov.”
Kerry, Lavrov and Putin earlier “spoke about this concept back in the spring, when Kerry first visited Moscow in April – at the time hooked to the notion that all shared an interest in avoiding collapse of the institutions of the state,” the U.S. official said.
In fact, Obama and Putin had discussed the concept at the G-20 meeting in Los Cabos, Mexico last year, and in subsequent meetings, “though agreement could not be reached,” the senior US official said.
Lavrov announced Monday that Russia was calling on Syria's leaders to turn over its chemical weapons to international custody, for subsequent destruction, and to sign the chemical weapons ban. Lavrov noted in his statement that the decision followed a telephone conversation he and Kerry had after Kerry was asked at a London news conference Monday if there is anything Syria could do to avert U.S. military action.
“He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week,” Kerry responded. “Turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that. But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously.”
Kerry's reference to a diplomatic option was immediately downplayed by State Department spokespeople as “rhetorical” and “hypothetical,” and by another unnamed US official to CNN as a “goof.” But President Obama, in previously scheduled television interviews Monday, indicated that while he was skeptical of the plan, it represents “a potentially positive development,” and he was willing to “run this to the ground” to determine if it was a serious and feasible proposal, and not just a delaying tactic.
In both Kerry's and the “President's mind, it can be a win-win,” the U.S. official said Tuesday. “Either you succeed in coming up with a …means by which it happens quickly and verifiably; or you get to.. show that you exhausted another diplomatic route which adds legitimacy and brings more partners and more in Congress to your side.”