WASHINGTON — Twenty-four hours after distancing itself from a Russian proposal to secure Syria's chemical weapons, the State Department moved Tuesday to claim co-ownership of the idea, which the U.S. says President Barack Obama and the Russian president first discussed last year.
Russia's unexpected announcement came Monday after Secretary of State John Kerry said that Syrian President Bashar Assad could avert a U.S. strike on his country by turning "over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week."
The State Department initially downplayed Kerry's remarks, which came at a news conference in London, dismissing them as a rhetorical flourish. But as support for the Russian idea snowballed, administration officials retooled their message.
By Tuesday, Kerry seemed to say it wasn't a verbal misstep at all. He told a House panel: "Yesterday, we challenged the regime to turn them over to the secure control of the international community so that they could be destroyed."
The mixed messages set off a daylong flurry of confusion and, as it turns out, Obama and Russian President Vladmir Putin first discussed the idea last year at an economic meeting in Mexico for world leaders.
Still, Kerry's comments in London went viral and spawned headlines about how an off-the-cuff remark might stop a U.S. military strike against Assad's regime.
They also came as a surprise to Obama administration officials who were working on the Syria portfolio back in Washington. Confused, they scrambled to mount a damage-control message to tamp down the idea that the administration was making an offer to Assad to avoid military action.
The same frenzy played out on Kerry's plane en route back to Washington. A senior State Department official told reporters Kerry and Lavrov talked on the plane. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the official wasn't authorized to discuss the sensitive diplomatic issues by name, said Kerry expressed serious skepticism, given the scale and complexity of the Syrian chemical weapons program.
Kerry told Lavrov that the U.S. was not going to "play games," but that if a serious proposal was presented, the U.S. would be willing to review it, the official said, adding that the U.S. had not seen any formal proposal. Kerry also made clear to Lavrov that the Russians could not go to the Syrians and say they were issuing their proposal jointly with the U.S.
Syria quickly embraced the idea. France, Britain and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed it.