Russia’s release of new details about notorious Israeli spy Eli Cohen has raised several questions about the role Moscow is currently playing in returning his remains from Damascus to Israel at the request of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to President Vladimir Putin.
Cohen, alias Kamel Amin Thabet, became acquainted with Syrian military attaché in Argentina, Amin Hafez, who would later become Syria’s President in 1963. Hafez always denied meeting Cohen. Cohen would later move to Damascus under his alias in 1962, forging relations with the Syrian elite until his cover was blown. He was arrested and executed in 1965.
Cohen, whom the Israeli Mossad referred to as “our man in Damascus”, has become the subject of numerous documentaries and television shows due to the valuable information that he sent to Israel over Syrian military movements on the Israeli front. He would send the information by radio from his apartment, steps away from the headquarters of the Syrian air force in the heart of Damascus.
He also played a role in cracking down on Nazis who were living in Damascus.
Many accounts have emerged over the way his cover was blown. Some accounts say that Egyptian intelligence was alerted of his dubious activities. Others said that embassies near his apartment complained of radio interference emitted by his spy devices.
Syrian experts said that Ahmed al-Sweidani, then chief of intelligence, had been suspicious of Cohen from the moment he moved to Damascus. He played a central role in uncovering his identity and his eventual arrest.
Others speak of a role played by Soviet experts and Soviet-made tracking equipment provided to Syrian intelligence in uncovering Cohen.
Much was written about Cohen over the decades. Netflix’s “The Spy” also focused on his covert activity in Syria. Russia Today, however, released an English language documentary that reveals new details about the spy.
The documentary starts with a film bought from an antique shop in Saint Petersburg. The film shows images of a man walking along March 29 street in Damascus. The street would later become the headquarters of the Soviet/Russian cultural center. The man in the images is Eli Cohen.
From there, the intriguing tale begins to unfold, especially as the documentary searches for the person who shot the film. The man is revealed to be Boris Lukin, a graduate of the Soviet military academy and specialist in signals and communication, whom Soviet records showed was awarded three “red star” medals.
Lukin and Cohen both arrived in Damascus at the same time. One of Cohen’s coded messages back to Israel had spoken of the arrival of 150 Soviet military experts in Damascus after the Soviet-western clash over Syria swayed towards Moscow when the Baath swept to power. The Mossad also knew that Lukin had arrived in Damascus. Both Lukin and Cohen would crack down on fugitive Nazis during their time in Damascus.
The documentary also featured an interview with Sergei Medvedenko, the son of Leonid, a journalist and suspected spy, who was also operating in Damascus. The documentary showed Cohen’s execution, shot from a rooftop, in never-before-seen footage.
Cohen’s cover was blown when Soviet-made tracking equipment traced his coded message and located where it was being transmitted from. It is unknown whether Lukin played a role in this operation, but significantly, his mission in Damascus ended with the spy’s execution.
Lukin would return to Moscow, while Syria would remain in the Soviet sphere despite the changes that would take place in the Russian capital over the years.
In past decades, Damascus used to balance between the West and the Soviets and Russians. In late 2015, the Russian army would intervene in Syria and later set up two military bases there. Now, Moscow balances between Damascus and other capitals, and plays mediator in several files.
Putin enjoys a special relationship with Israel, which Netanyahu wants to exploit to return Cohen’s remains from Syria. A former high-ranking officer in Damascus once said that the location of those remains changed every few weeks.
Salah al-Dalali, the judge who presided over Cohen’s trial, told me in 2004 that the spy was buried in a cave on the a-Dimas road. His remains were later exhumed and he was buried in an “unknown location.” In all likelihood, who ever reburied him was either released from the army or has since left his post.