WASHINGTON — The idea of coming up with a plan to secure Syria's chemical weapons dates back more than a year, when President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin first discussed the matter on the sidelines of an economic summit in Los Cabos, Mexico.
At the time, the two — as they've been for much of the 2½-year Syrian civil war — remained far apart in their views on the conflict. During their talks in Los Cabos, Obama complained to Russia that its arms sale to Syria perpetuated the bloody conflict, while Putin argued that the sales were part of a longstanding relationship with the Bashar Assad regime, according a senior administration official, who was not authorized to discuss the deliberations and spoke on condition of anonymity.
But the two leaders seemed to find some common ground on the need to secure Syria's chemical weapons stockpile, although no agreement was reached.
"I suggested the need for the United States and Russia to work together to deal with this particular problem," Obama recalled to Fox News in an interview that aired Monday. "It doesn't solve the underlying Syrian conflict. But if we can solve this chemical weapons issue — which is a threat to us and the world — then it does potentially lay the groundwork for further discussions around how you can bring about a political settlement inside of Syria."
The administration official, who offered a detailed timeline of U.S.-Russian exchanges on how to best contain the chemical weapons stockpiles, said Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavarov first discussed the concept when Kerry visited Moscow in April and then again the following month over a long dinner at the Russian ministry of foreign policy on the eve of Russia's Victory Day, the anniversary of Nazi Germany's capitulation to the Soviet Union.
The two spoke of looking at the dissolution of Libya's nuclear program — Moammar Gadhafi dismantled the program under international agreement in 2003 and 2004.
"At the time, it was more aspirational and less urgent and the regime was not under pressure to cooperate because the world had not yet turned on them," according the official.
Kerry and Lavrov continued to talk about the role Russia could play facilitating a plan to secure Syria's weapons. The two, along with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, discussed the prospect again when the Russian leaders visited Washington on Aug. 9, just days after the White House announced Obama was scratching a September visit in Moscow for bilateral meetings with Putin.
Obama had decided to cancel the meeting with Putin after a series of disputes with the Russians, including frustration with their Syria policy and the decision to grant temporary asylum to former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
After the Syrians' alleged attack on the outskirts of Damascus on Aug. 21, which would eventually trigger Obama's decision to call on Congress to endorse a limited military strike against Syria, conversations between Kerry and Lavrov picked up. The two have spoken nine times since Aug. 21.
"There is no question that the seriousness of Russia's interest in playing a role in securing the chemical weapons increased following the attack," the official said.
Late last week, days after announcing his desire to carry out a punitive strike on Syria, Obama was in St. Petersburg, Russia, for this year's meeting of the G-20. There was no plan for Putin and Obama to hold formal discussions, but the two chatted informally at the tail end of the first plenary session.
The two leaders then decided to go into a corner of the room and spoke about Syria for 20 to 30 minutes, the official said.
Both leaders repeated their longstanding belief that a political solution was the only reasonable end to a civil war that has killed more than 100,000 Syrians, but they remained at odds about Assad's role in the process.
They did, however, agree something had to be done about chemical weapons, and Putin again broached the idea about finding a path for an international agreement to remove chemical weapons from Syria, according to official.
Obama agreed it was a path worth exploring, and both leaders agreed that Kerry and Lavrov should follow up.
On Monday, Kerry said at a London news conference that a military confrontation could be avoided if Syria gave up its chemical weapons. At the time, the comment seemed to be an offhanded one, and State Department officials immediately described it as a "rhetorical" statement.
But later Monday, Kerry spoke by telephone with Lavrov and told him the United States was not ready to embrace such a proposal but was willing to take a hard look if it was credible, the official said.
Soon after the phone call, Lavrov announced that Russia was willing to play a role in securing the Syrian chemical weapons. The proposal was quickly embraced by Syrian government officials and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon.
On Tuesday, Obama told lawmakers that he wanted to give the Russian proposal a chance to succeed and was putting consideration of the strike on hold.
Later Tuesday, Obama spoke by phone with France's President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron to discuss whether the Russian proposal was workable.
Putin, meanwhile, told reporters he would agree only to a Syrian chemical weapons hand-off if Obama renounced the use of military force against that country — even as Obama told senators in a pair of meetings that the military option must remain open.
"It is difficult to make any country — Syria or any other country in the world — to unilaterally disarm if there is military action against it under consideration," Putin said.
The talks will continue when Kerry and Lavrov meet in Geneva on Thursday.