WASHINGTON (AFP) - The US administration has hit back against sneers it had accidentally stumbled on a way to avert military strikes on Syria, saying ideas for securing chemical weapons had been percolating for months.
US officials appeared to have been caught by surprise on Monday, when during a press conference in London Secretary of State John Kerry floated the idea that strikes could be avoided if the regime handed over its chemical weapons to international control.
Within hours his comments had ignited a storm, winning growing global backing and prompting the Russians to say they would draw up proper proposals with Syrian support.
Pundits wondered whether it had been a gaffe by Mr Kerry, or part of a deliberate ploy by President Barack Obama's administration to avert a potentially damaging vote in the Congress on unpopular calls for US military action.
"Our goal from the beginning has been to secure the chemical weapons stockpile in Syria," a senior administration official insisted on Tuesday.
"The announcement by the Russians was the result of months of meetings and conversations between Presidents Obama and (Vladimir) Putin, and Secretary Kerry and Secretary Lavrov, about the role Russia could play in securing chemical weapons," the official told AFP, asking to remain anonymous.
The idea was first discussed at a G20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico, a year ago by Mr Obama and Mr Putin, and has been raised in subsequent meetings "though agreement could not be reached," the official said.
Mr Kerry sought to flesh it out during a trip to Moscow in May, when he discussed with Mr Lavrov "replicating the potential model of Libya's nuclear programme which in 2003 was removed under an international agreement."
For both Mr Obama and Mr Kerry, the move could be "a win-win," despite the logistical difficulties of bringing an estimated 1,000 tonnes of chemical agents under international control.
"Either you succeed in coming up with a formula/means by which it happens quickly and verifiably, or you get to say/show that you exhausted another diplomatic route which adds legitimacy and brings more partners and more in Congress to your side," the official said.
During last week's talks on the sidelines of a G20 summit in Saint Petersburg, Mr Putin "broached the idea" again about reaching international agreement on removing chemical weapons and "Obama agreed that could be an avenue for cooperation," the official said.
"This was the first time the Russians showed a seriousness in getting this done now and a willingness to put a serious proposal together," the official stressed.
While more talks had been planned, there was no announcement in the offing, until Mr Lavrov's proposal on Monday "which went further than we anticipated."
Now "the ball's in their court to see if they can be serious, and whether they can come up with a proposal that's serious," the official added.