The idea that has upended President Barack Obama’s push for a military attack on Syria—tossed out as an aside by his secretary of state at a news conference—had been discussed with Russia over the past year and more frequently in recent weeks, according to a U.S. account of the discussions.
Secretary of State John Kerry acted on his own, without White House direction, when he suggested on Monday that Syria could avert a U.S. attack if it gave up its chemical weapons.
The comment, in remarks his spokeswoman later described as “rhetorical” and “hypothetical,” set off a chain reaction that could provide Mr. Obama away out of the crisis, or give him the political cover to say he exhausted his diplomatic options.
Though the development came as a surprise, one year ago Mr. Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin met at a Group of 20 summit in Mexico and talked about the idea of Syria turning over its chemical weapons supply to international control, an administration official said. The two leaders couldn’t strike a deal.
Over the past year, Obama administration officials and their Russian counterparts have discussed ways to neutralize Syria’s chemical weapons.
In April, Mr. Kerry made his first trip to Moscow as secretary of state and took part in a dinner with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, that lasted until 2:30 a.m.
They discussed a model for eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons, much as Libya agreed to give up its nuclear program a decade ago, the administration official said.
In June, the U.S. concluded that Mr. Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons on a small scale—and Mr. Obama authorized the Central Intelligence Agency to help arm moderate fighters battling the Assad regime. Russia continued to avow its support for Damascus.
Then came the attack on Aug. 21 in the outskirts of Damascus, which the U.S. concluded was carried out by the Assad regime and killed more than 1,400 people.
After the attack, the talks between Messrs. Kerry and Lavrov picked up steam: They have talked nine times since Aug. 21, the administration official said. As Messrs. Obama and Kerry made forceful declarations that the attack deserved a strong, punitive response, Russia defended Damascus, and said that rebels, not the regime, were responsible.
Something of a breakthrough took place at the latest G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia last week.
Mr. Obama had no plans to meet with Mr. Putin at the two-day summit. But on the final day, they spoke privately for about 20 minutes.
Mr. Putin mentioned the plan to remove the weapons from Mr. Assad’s control, and Mr. Obama agreed it could be an avenue for cooperation, both sides confirm.
They agreed to have Messrs. Kerry and Lavrov shape a proposal. But discussions about it were still preliminary—and the administration had doubts that it would work.