Kerry: ‘I Want to Thank President Putin’

By Terence P. Jeffrey | September 14, 2013 | 7:03 PM EDT

Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at a meeting in Moscow in May 2013. (AP Photo)

( - Secretary of State John Kerry said today that he wanted thank Russian President Vladimir Putin for pursuing a diplomatic solution for dealing with the problem caused by the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad controlling and using chemical weapons.

When Kerry first floated that diplomatic solution while talking to reporters in London on Monday, it was immediately described by his own State Department as a "rhetorical" statement and by the White House as a "hypothetical"--and dismissed in an initial New York Times headline as an "offhand proposal."

Yet, within five days, in a remarkable turn of events, Kerry was thanking Russia's president for taking the proposal up and making it a reality.

“I want to thank President Putin for his willingness to pick up on the possibility of negotiating an end to Syrian weapons of mass destruction,” Kerry said today in Geneva, where along with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov he announced a deal to remove and destroy Syria’s chemical weapon’s stocks.

The path to that diplomatic solution began when Kerry, speaking in London five days ago, suggested that Syria give up all its chemical weapons—and then almost in the same breath dismissed that as something that could never happen.

However, the Russian government swiftly snatched up Kerry’s rhetorical statement, put it to the Syrian government, and announced that they intended to move forward with it.

Today, in Geneva, Kerry and Lavrov announced a six-point plan to carry this diplomatic solution out with the endgame being the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons by the middle of next year.

In London on Monday, a reporter from CBS News had asked Kerry: “Is there anything at this point that his [Bashar al-Assad’s] government could do or offer that would stop an attack?”

“Sure,” said Kerry. “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 and total accounting for that. But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously.”

In Moscow that day, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov had been meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, and the Russians moved swiftly on Kerry’s London statement. As recounted by the London Independent, the Russian government immediately pressed the Syrian regime to accept the American offer to hold off attacks in exchange for handing over its chemical weapons for destruction.

Lavrov said the Russians were looking for “a quick answer” from the Syrians.  "If the establishment of international control over chemical weapons makes it possible to avoid strikes, then we will immediately get to work with Damascus," he said.

Meanwhile, despite the Russian move, the White House described Kerry's remarks as "hypothetical" and the State Department dismissed them as “rhetorical.”

As reported by the New York Times, State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki emailed reporters shortly after Kerry spoke in London to inform them that in saying Syria could avoid a strike by giving up its chemical weapons, Kerry had been ''making a rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood of Assad turning over chemical weapons he has denied using.''

At the White House briefing that day, when asked about Kerry's remarks and the Russian's immediate seizing on them, Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken said Kerry had been speaking "hypothetically" but that the administration would take a "hard look" at what the Russians were proposing.

“No, I think he was speaking--I think he was--I believe he was answering a question and speaking hypothetically about what if Assad were to do that," Blinken said at the White House. "And, of course, we would welcome Assad giving up his chemical weapons, doing it in a verifiable manner so that we can account for them and destroy them. That's the whole purpose of what we're trying to achieve, to make sure that he can't use them again. That would be terrific.

“But, unfortunately," said Blinken, "the track record to date, including recent statements by Assad not even acknowledging that he has chemical weapons, doesn't give you a lot of confidence. But, that said, we want to look hard at what the Russians have proposed, and we will.”

A little bit later that day, at the State Department briefing, a reporter asked deputy spokesperson Marie Harf to clarify, given the conflicting signals, whether Kerry's London proposal was serious or rhetorical.

“The Secretary’s comments this morning in London, whether or not they were rhetorical or serious, they seem to have been embraced and endorsed by a growing number of people,” said a reporter. “And I just heard the White House Deputy National Security Advisor say that he would have to take a hard look at the Russian proposal which is a bit odd since it wasn’t a Russian proposal. It was actually a proposal by Secretary Kerry. Was this rhetorical or was it serious?”

“What Secretary Kerry said, as Jen said, I believe, from the road, was that he was speaking rhetorically about a situation we thought had very low probability of happening,” said Harf. “What Ben, I believe, said and what we’re saying is that we will have to take a hard look at the Russian statement, which is what’s happened since then. And so we understand exactly what the Russians are proposing here. I think that’s what we’ve been clear about. Clearly, we have some serious skepticism.”

Today, in Geneva, Kerry and Lavrov announced that the United States and Russia have gotten Syria to agree to relinquish all of its chemical weapons for destruction by the middle of next year.

“We have agreed to destroy all chemical weapons, including the possibility of removing weapons for destruction outside of Syria,” said Kerry.

The U.S. secretary of state repeatedly thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin for his willingness to pursue diplomacy to disarm Syria of chemical weapons.

Putin’s “willingness to embrace ideas for how to accomplish this goal, and his willingness to send Foreign Minister Lavrov here to pursue this effort was essential to getting to this point,” said Kerry.

“I’m pleased that President Putin took initiative, and Sergey took initiative, and President Obama responded, and we’re here,” said Kerry.

At his joint press conference with Lavrov today, a reporter asked Kerry: “Sir, just five days ago in London, when you first floated this idea publicly, you seemed to dismiss it at the time by saying Assad would never do it and, quote, ‘It can’t be done, obviously.’ My question, sir, is how did the impossible suddenly become possible?”

“I purposefully made the statements that I made in London, and I did indeed say it was impossible and he won’t do it, even as I hoped it would be possible and wanted him to do it,” said Kerry. “And the language of diplomacy sometimes requires that you put things to the test, and we did.”