WASHINGTON — The afternoon gathering of world leaders was just breaking up in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Friday when President Vladimir Putin walked over to President Barack Obama and began chatting. Obama suggested they sit down, and the two pulled chairs into a corner of the room.
They had been at odds over Obama's plans to launch airstrikes against Syria in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack on civilians. But now Putin brought up an idea: What if Syria surrendered its stockpiles of poison gas to the international community? 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 Monday after a seemingly offhand comment by Secretary of State John Kerry, it had actually grown out of conversations between Obama and Putin going back more than a year. But Kerry's remark gave Putin the opening to seize control of the Syria debate and effectively derail Obama's planned strike.
Although skeptical of his Russian counterpart, Obama has now tentatively embraced the proposal as a possible resolution to his confrontation with President Bashar 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 Tuesday, many officials, including some in the White House, wondered whether Putin was playing Obama rather than helping out.
Putin has, after all, been no friend of Obama's on a variety of issues, and there is no guarantee that Syria will ultimately live up to commitments.
The discussion about Syria's unconventional arms first came up between Obama and 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, 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. A few months later, Obama raised the stakes on the matter when he declared in August 2012 that Assad should not cross the "red line" of using such weapons.
By the following spring, as reports emerged of small-scale chemical attacks, Obama struggled over whether his red line had been crossed and how to respond.
Kerry visited Moscow in May and, echoing Obama, again mentioned the issue of securing Syria's weapons with Putin as part of a broader political transition.
The sarin gas attack Aug. 21 that the U.S. 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 Assad stepping down. Now it was about heading off a U.S. strike, something that Putin made a priority.
Kerry and Lavrov spoke nine times after Aug. 21, and the issue was among those tossed out, but Kerry was dubious. The U.S. 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?
After Putin raised the proposal with Obama on Friday, U.S. officials were still not sure it was a serious prospect.
After returning to Washington, Obama's national security adviser, Susan Rice, briefed Kerry, who was planning to speak with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov by telephone on Monday. He was skeptical, and when a reporter asked in London on Monday if Assad could avoid a strike, 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, Kerry and his aides sent messages back to the White House. Then the secretary and Russian foreign minister talked by telephone as scheduled while Kerry was on his plane heading back to Washington.
Lavrov told him he had noticed Kerry's comments. Kerry replied that he had merely been making a debating point.
Nonetheless, Lavrov said, he planned to make a public proposal that Syria allow international monitors to control the chemical weapons and ultimately give them up.
Kerry was wary.
"We are not going to play games," he said.