New York Times
September 11, 2013
WASHINGTON — The afternoon gathering of world leaders was just breaking up in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Friday when President Vladimir V. Putin walked over to President Obama and began chatting casually. Mr. Obama suggested they sit down, and the two pulled chairs into a corner of the room.
They had been at odds over Mr. Obama’s plans to launch airstrikes against Syria in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack on civilians. But now Mr. Putin brought up an idea. What if Syria surrendered its stockpiles of poison gas to the international community? Mr. Obama suggested that they have their top diplomats explore it further.
While the proposal appeared to come out of the blue when Russia made it public on Monday after a seemingly offhand comment by Secretary of State John Kerry, it had actually grown out of conversations between Mr. Obama and Mr. Putin going back more than a year. But Mr. Kerry’s remark gave Mr. Putin the opening to spring the idea on the world, seize control of the Syria debate and effectively derail Mr. Obama’s planned strike.
Although skeptical of his Russian counterpart, Mr. Obama has now tentatively embraced the proposal as a possible resolution to his confrontation with President Bashar al-Assad — and at the same time as an escape from a showdown with a Congress poised to reject military action. But as Washington contemplated the many obstacles to the plan on Tuesday, many officials, including some in the White House, wondered whether Mr. Putin was playing Mr. Obama rather than helping out.
Mr. Putin has after all been no friend of Mr. Obama’s on a variety of issues, not least Syria, where the Kremlin has continued to back Mr. Assad against rebels out to topple him with arms provided by American allies. Mr. Putin stepped forward to shield Mr. Assad from American missiles, not to degrade him militarily. And there is no guarantee Syria will live up to commitments.
“We want to make sure this isn’t simply a rabbit hole, but rather a pathway to achieving our objective,” said a senior administration official, who like others requested anonymity to describe confidential deliberations. What seemed promising, he added, was that the Russian proposal was more concrete than before and that Syria signaled acceptance. “All that suggests this really could be a successful course of action, but we still have to test it.”
The test could be daunting. Russia proposed taking part in securing and removing the weapons and required Syria to ratify a treaty banning chemical weapons. But many details were still missing, and the two sides quickly disagreed over enforcement. Mr. Kerry put down a marker on the plan: “It has to be swift, it has to be real, it has to be verifiable” and “cannot be a delaying tactic.”
The discussion about Syria’s unconventional arms first came up between Mr. Obama and Mr. Putin when they met on the sidelines of a Group of 20 summit meeting in Los Cabos, Mexico, in June 2012, according to accounts of several administration officials who requested anonymity to describe internal and diplomatic conversations. Their meeting was dominated by their dispute over Syria and the civil war, but according to aides, Mr. Obama mentioned the issue of securing Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons.
The president brought the idea up more notionally than concretely, and it went nowhere, aides said, because the Russians were highly resistant to any intrusion in Syria’s internal affairs. A few months later, Mr. Obama raised the stakes on the matter when he declared in August 2012 that Mr. Assad should not cross the “red line” of using such weapons.
By spring, as reports emerged of small-scale chemical attacks, Mr. Obama struggled over whether his red line had been crossed and how to respond. Mr. Kerry visited Moscow in May and, echoing Mr. Obama, again mentioned the issue of securing Syria’s weapons with Mr. Putin as part of a broader political transition the United States sought to remove Mr. Assad.
Mr. Putin agreed to keep discussing it. “He said, ‘O.K., you work with Lavrov on this,’ ” another senior official recalled, referring to Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister. Mr. Kerry talked about it with Mr. Lavrov at a dinner that did not start until midnight and continued until 2 a.m. The two considered the idea in the context of Libya, which voluntarily gave up its nuclear program a decade earlier. But once again nothing happened, because the idea was tied to a broader Geneva-based peace process that foundered.
Obama administration officials said they never offered a disarmament plan publicly themselves because it would have been pointless unless Russia was determined to bring Syria to the table. “We believed it would be dead on arrival in terms of us leading the diplomacy with the Syrians in pursuit of this,” a senior official said.
The issue came up again during an Aug. 9 meeting between Mr. Kerry and Mr. Lavrov and their defense counterparts. But the sarin gas attack on Aug. 21 that the American government said killed more than 1,400 people outside Damascus changed the dynamics. Now it was no longer about securing Syria’s weapons in conjunction with Mr. Assad’s stepping down. Now it was about heading off an American strike, something Mr. Putin made a top priority.
Mr. Kerry and Mr. Lavrov spoke nine times after Aug. 21, and the issue was among those tossed out, but Mr. Kerry was dubious. The American government had extensively studied options for removing chemical weapons from Syria, either by force in case the government collapsed or through some sort of negotiation, and found plenty of thorny questions.
How would Syria’s massive stocks of chemical weapons be secured and transported out of the country? How could international inspectors ensure stocks were not hidden? And how could all that happen in a country in the middle of a ferocious civil war?
When Mr. Obama headed to St. Petersburg for another Group of 20 meeting, this one hosted by Mr. Putin, and Mr. Kerry headed to Europe for meetings, they were focused instead on gathering support from allies for a statement condemning the Aug. 21 attack, blaming it on Mr. Assad and endorsing an unspecified response.
But others floated the idea of Syria’s giving up its weapons to Russia. Radoslaw Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister, mentioned it in a telephone call with Mr. Kerry on Aug. 29. Mr. Kerry “seemed interested” and noted that he would soon talk with Mr. Lavrov, Mr. Sikorski recalled. Mr. Sikorski followed up with Mr. Kerry at a meeting in Vilnius, Lithuania, last week, suggesting a deadline for destroying the arsenal.
Mr. Putin put the idea back onto the agenda in St. Petersburg after thwarting any broader international support for an American strike. “What they fear, and what they oppose all the time by the U.S. or other countries, for that matter, is the use of force without the authorization of the Security Council,” said Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. If Mr. Putin can pull it off, “it will mean that Russia’s prestige will grow.”
After Mr. Putin raised it with Mr. Obama on Friday, American officials were still not sure it was a serious prospect. “It was a notional conversation that was more constructive than previous conversations on this subject,” said an administration official. “But there was not yet an indication that this could be ripe enough for immediate action.”
After returning to Washington, Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, Susan E. Rice, briefed Mr. Kerry, who was planning to speak with Mr. Lavrov by telephone on Monday. He was skeptical, and when a reporter asked in London on Monday if Mr. Assad could avoid a strike, Mr. Kerry said he could promptly turn over his chemical weapons. But few paid attention to the dismissive caveat he added: “He isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done.”
Recognizing the possible implications of what he had said, Mr. Kerry and his aides sent messages back to the White House. Then the secretary and Russian foreign minister talked by telephone as scheduled while Mr. Kerry was on his plane heading back to Washington.
Mr. Lavrov told him that he had noticed Mr. Kerry’s comments.
Mr. Kerry replied that he had merely been making a debating point.
Nonetheless, Mr. Lavrov said, he planned to make a public proposal that Syria allow international monitors to control the chemical weapons and ultimately give them up.
Mr. Kerry was wary. “We are not going to play games,” he said. If it was a serious proposal, he added, then the Obama administration would consider it, but the White House would not slow efforts to win Congressional authorization for a strike.
After 14 minutes, they hung up. Mr. Lavrov did not send Mr. Kerry a copy of his statement or plan. But at the White House, where the president faced the likelihood of a decisive defeat in Congress, aides pored over news reports of the Russian plan and found it detailed enough to take seriously.
Mr. Obama decided to express cautious optimism in six already scheduled television interviews, then later headed upstairs to the residence for the evening with a draft of his national address. By Tuesday morning, he had rewritten it and was on the phone with his British and French counterparts to let them know he would give the Russian effort a chance.
Mr. Kerry got back on the phone with Mr. Lavrov for a 19-minute call, and agreed to talk again on Wednesday and meet in Geneva on Thursday.
What a day earlier he had said “can’t be done” now was on the table.
Steven Lee Myers contributed reporting from Moscow, and Robert F. Worth from Washington.