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Syrian chemical weapons plan: Gaffe, or 'rabbit out of a hat?'

By Matt Smith, CNN
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue September 10, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • How did John Kerry's so-called "major goof" turn into a possible solution to Syrian crisis?
  • Syria accepts proposal to hand chemical weapons over to international control
  • This is diplomacy in real time, says administration official
  • Next step for Kerry will be trip to Geneva to meet with Russian counterpart

(CNN) -- For the Obama administration, yesterday's gaffe may be tomorrow's masterstroke.

The idea that Secretary of State John Kerry said would never work now appears to be the best chance of averting a U.S. military strike on Syria, and the Obama administration moved on Tuesday to stake its claim on the proposal.

It started early on Monday, when Kerry broached the idea of Syria handing its arsenal of chemical weapons to international control. But Kerry immediately dismissed the idea, saying Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad "isn't about to do it, and it can't be done, obviously."

Shortly after, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced that Moscow would be willing to support it, and his Syrian counterpart quickly welcomed the concept.

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With the administration fighting an uphill battle to win support from Congress for military action, a U.S. official told CNN on condition of anonymity that Kerry's remarks were a "major goof." Kerry spokeswoman Jen Psaki sought to roll back the comments, saying he was simply responding to a "hypothetical."

But by Monday evening, President Barack Obama called it a welcome development "if true," warning that it couldn't be used as an opportunity for Syria to stall for time.

Obama told CNN that the threat of American force "has prompted some interesting conversations," including one he had with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Group of 20 economic summit Putin hosted in St. Petersburg.

"When I was at the G20, we had some time to discuss this, and I believe that Mr. Putin does not see the use of chemical weapons as a good thing inside of Syria or anyplace else," Obama said.

And by Tuesday morning, Kerry told the House Armed Services Committee that the Russian plan "is not something that, you know, suddenly emerged, though it did publicly."

"President Putin raised the issue with President Obama at St. Petersburg. President Obama directed us to try to continue to talk and see if it is possible," he said.

The plan appears to have taken on "a life of its own" in the past day and could help Washington and Moscow reach "a mutually face-saving solution," said Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program and the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"This is really a rabbit out of a hat," Kuchins said.

For Obama, with Americans largely opposed to yet another military action in the Middle East, "this is the way to at least buy some time and get diplomacy back in the game and in the front seat." And Russia -- Syria's leading ally -- doesn't want "to be viewed as the defenders of the user of chemical weapons, and Vladimir Putin would rather aspire to winning the Nobel Peace Prize," Kuchins said.

A senior Obama administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Monday's developments weren't pre-planned, but were an example of diplomacy in real time.

Lavrov and Kerry had discussed the idea over the weekend; the two spoke again after Kerry's comments on Monday in a previously scheduled call, when Lavrov told Kerry he would make a public proposal based on the American's remarks.

But Kuchins said Tuesday's explanation is "almost not at all" believable.

"I would hope that our two governments had talked about the possibility of cooperation and dealing with the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal. I don't doubt that that's come up in conversations," he said. "But to suggest that President Obama and Putin were talking seriously about this? They only talked for 20 minutes or so at the G20, and there has to be time for interpretation."

Kuchins cautioned that reaching agreement on a U.N. resolution to close the deal will be difficult, and implementing an agreement "is going to be much more difficult." But he added, "We'll see how it goes."

Perhaps more will be known after Thursday. That's when Kerry travels to Geneva to meet with Lavrov to begin discussions on a possible deal, according to senior State Department officials.

Kerry will be accompanied by a team of experts at the talks, which are expected to take place in several sessions over two days.

The officials cautioned that the negotiations may not be concluded in Geneva and any agreement would be presented to the United Nations for consideration as a resolution.

CNN's Jim Acosta and Elise Labott contributed to this report.

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