Cheney, who left the State Department on maternity leave in the spring of 2006, is known to be politically very close to her father and to some of the neo-conservatives, notably the vice president's national security adviser, John Hannah, and senior Middle East aide, David Wurmser, in his office.
That she should issue such a sweeping call for Syria's diplomatic isolation and the adoption of both bilateral and multilateral sanctions against Damascus at this moment evoked considerable speculation here, particularly about the current power balance between hawks led by the vice president and Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams, on the one hand, and "realists" led by the State Department, on the other, within the Bush administration.
"This could be a desperate attempt to reverse a trend that is going against them," said Wayne White, a former top State Department Middle East analyst and adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute here, noting that the administration's policy of isolating Syria has taken a number of serious hits recently with the visits of both U.S. lawmakers and foreign diplomats.
Cheney's blast, he added, "could not be more ill-timed... To the extent that Syria is angered by this sort of thing, it could make the situation worse."
In the last six weeks, Rice has moved -- albeit somewhat tentatively -- to ease Washington's unilateral diplomatic embargo against Damascus which it launched in early 2005 after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which has been the subject of a U.N. Security Council investigation whose results are expected to be made public shortly.
In late February, she explicitly embraced recommendations by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group (ISG) that Washington sit down with Damascus, as well as Iran, as part of a series of regional talks on Iraq that began in early March in Baghdad. She announced at the same time that she would personally take part in the second round of talks which is currently considered likely to take place in Egypt in early May.
She also sent her top refugee aide, Ellen Sauerbrey, to Damascus in early March to discuss with officials there the plight of as many as one million Iraqis who have sought safe haven in Syria.
Finally, she offered strong rhetorical support for King Abdullah's efforts to re-launch at last month's Arab League meeting in Riyadh -- the 2002 "Beirut Declaration" -- a peace plan that offered Israel normalized relations with all Arab League members, including Syria, in exchange for its return to its 1967 borders.
It was at the Riyadh meeting that Abdullah met personally with Assad, symbolically ending two years of estrangement between the two governments that began with Hariri's assassination and worsened during last summer's war between Hezbollah and Israel when Assad accused the region's Sunni leaders of being "half-men" for attacking the Lebanese group for recklessness.
The Saudis, like State Department "realists" and the ISG's co-chairmen, former Secretary of State James Baker and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton, have come to believe that wooing Syria, whose isolation has made it increasingly dependent on Iran, is critical to a larger strategy of containing and rolling back Tehran's influence in the region, particularly its influence over both Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas.
That view is also increasingly accepted in Israel where a growing number of current and retired senior national security officials have been calling for the government to accept Assad's repeated overtures since last fall to resume peace talks that broke down early 2000.
Indeed, on the same day that Cheney blasted all western and Arab efforts to engage Damascus, the Israeli Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee met with a Syrian-American with close ties to the Assad family and a former senior Israeli foreign ministry official, Alon Liel, who testified about their secret, two-year effort to draft a detailed peace plan.
"I ask the Israeli government -- I challenge the Israeli government -- to answer President Bashar Assad's call for peace," said the Assad confidant, Ibrahim Suleiman, who predicted that a final accord for normalisation of ties and the gradual return of the Golan Heights to Syria could be hashed out within six months.
But such an engagement has been vehemently opposed by Cheney, Abrams, and other administration hawks, who, despite their diminishing numbers within the administration since the departure of former Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and U.N. Amb. John Bolton, have so far held the line against the State Department's -- and, for that matter, the Israeli government's -- interest in at least exploring what Damascus may be prepared to offer.
Indeed, if Cheney's column, entitled "The Truth About Syria", reflects the hawks' view, it appears they are prepared to fight tooth and nail against any attempt -- whether by Israel, Saudi Arabia, or even Washington's European allies -- to gain Syria's cooperation on a range of Middle East issues, from stabilising Iraq to reining in Hezbollah and Hamas.
"European governments should demonstrate that they value justice over profit and impose financial and travel sanctions on Syria," wrote Cheney who also called on the administration to itself impose the full range of sanctions against Damascus, a number of which Bush has so far ignored, that has been authorised by Congress.
Despite the fact that U.N. investigators have yet to submit their final report, Cheney all but accused Assad of responsibility not only for Hariri's assassination, but also for that of four other prominent Lebanese, including Pierre Gemayel's death last November, the circumstances of which, many independent analysts believe, pointed more to the victim's Christian rivals, notably Samir Geagea, than to Damascus.
"She certainly seems to be appointing herself judge, jury and executioner." said Chris Toensing, editor of the Middle East Research and Information Project, who added that both Cheney's prejudgment about the assassinations and her openly taking sides with the current Lebanese government against an opposition that represents a substantial percentage, if not a majority, of the population was "wildly irresponsible, even for a former official".
While some analysts here said they believe Cheney's column reflected panic that the hawks' position is eroding, particularly given their disappointment at the lack of popular or Congressional outrage that followed Pelosi's visit, others said they believed it reflected Bush's own views, at least on Syria.
"She's doing Daddy's business," said ret. Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, who served as chief of staff under former Secretary of State Colin Powell. "It's what Powell used to say about Bush: he's got these rough edges, and Cheney knows how to rub them."
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Albion Monitor April
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