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Kerry's Syria Switch May Not Have Been Offhanded After All


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

This week's diplomacy over Syria was widely described as improvisational. John Kerry made a comment that his own aides were at pains to describe as rhetorical. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov pounced on it opportunistically. Well, today there's some revisionist reporting on that score, reporting that Kerry and Lavrov were actually building on a year's worth of U.S.-Russia conversations.

Among those stories is one by Peter Nicholas and Adam Entous in The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: A Long Path Led to Offer on Chemical Arms. And Peter Nicholas joins us, hi.

PETER NICHOLAS: Hi, good to be with you.

SIEGEL: Let's listen first, one more time, to what John Kerry said when a reporter asked him on Monday whether Bashar al-Assad could do anything to avoid an attack.

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: Sure, he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week - turn it over, all of it without delay and allow a full total accounting for that. But he isn't about to do it and it can't be done obviously.

SIEGEL: Peter, if it sounded like an offhand remark. But you write the U.S. and Russia started talking about disarming Syria of its chemical weapons over a year ago.

NICHOLAS: Yes, at the time, Secretary Kerry's remarks seemed ad hoc and it didn't look like this was fully fleshed out. But what we've learned, through our reporting, is that the administration has had high level conversations with Russian counterparts on this issue for over a year. President Obama, President Putin at a G-20 Summit meeting in Las Cabos, Mexico a year ago, talked about this idea of placing chemical weapons stockpile - controlled by Assad - placing it in international control. And so, this is intermittently over the past year, Secretary Kerry and Lavrov have discussed this and here we are.

SIEGEL: Kerry went to Moscow, his first trip as Secretary of State, in the spring. You believe that he and Lavrov discussed it at that point?

NICHOLAS: Yes, they had a marathon dinner that lasted till 2:30 in the morning. And they discussed this very idea of placing chemical weapons under international control.

SIEGEL: Then comes the G-20 Summit this year in St. Petersburg, Russia. This is the one where President Obama actually canceled a special summit with Vladimir Putin because of Edward Snowden having been welcomed by the Russians. They actually did talk and they talked about this, you say.

NICHOLAS: Yes. What happened was, on the final day of the summit, the two men began talking informally and sat down for about a half an hour, and wound up talking exclusively about Syria. And this idea was brought up by President Putin, who talked about this concept of ridding Syria of chemical weapons, taking their stockpile that exists and putting it under international control.

President Obama was very interested in the idea. And the two men agreed to have their foreign ministers discuss their proposal further.

SIEGEL: 'Cause then in August, we had this very big chemical attack. And there continued to be Kerry and Lavrov talks?

NICHOLAS: Yes. The chemical weapons attack on August 21st apparently catalyzed the Russian side. And the Russians took this proposal with more urgency, and Kerry and Lavrov met nine times after that attack on August 21st.

SIEGEL: Which brings us to John Kerry in London, on Monday. Do you have any sense of the secretary planning to make a remark, planning to fly a trial balloon about international observers taking over the chemical weapons?

NICHOLAS: This is an important question. He was not told to bring this up by the White House but clearly Kerry had been thinking about it. He'd had many months of discussions about it, so it was rattling around in his head, and he broached it.

SIEGEL: Now, with votes not looking too good for the administration in either house of Congress, there does seem to be something self-serving at this point about saying: Hey, we'd planned this one all along. Do you get that sense now or is it solid?

NICHOLAS: So there was first some confusion in the hours after Kerry said this. As you mentioned, the State Department said it was sort of a hypothetical that he was floating. But then when the Russian responded so positively and members of Congress responded positively and, at that point, the White House decided to run it to ground and decided that this needs further exploration. And it sort of put the military track on hold for a while, while the diplomatic track is played out and this is pursued.

SIEGEL: Peter Nicholas, thank you very much for talking with us.

NICHOLAS: Great to be with you.

SIEGEL: Peter Nicholas, White House correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, reports in today's paper on the talks that preceded this week's U.S.-Russia Syria diplomacy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.