Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Ten Factual Errors in Netflix Series on Israeli Spy Eli Cohen

Eli Cohen
Building where Israel spy Eli Cohen lived in the Abu Rummaneh neighbourhood in Damascus, Syria. Photo: Asharq al-Awsat.

Role of Hafez al-Assad, Amin al-Hafez and Michel Aflaq was ‘fiction’

Asharq al-Awsat, 19 September 2019.

By: Ibrahim Hamidi 

The Spy series, released on Netflix on 6 September 2019, purports to tell the true story of Israeli spy Eli Cohen, who infiltrated the Syrian government in the 1960s.

Although Netflix noted that the series, which was directed by Gideon Raff and stars British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, is not a factual retelling of events but a dramatization based on a French book entitled The Spy Who Came From Israel, the series includes several factual errors that some Arab viewers have found insulting. Moreover, the series focuses on Cohen’s experience from an Israeli point of view, almost entirely omitting the Syrian version of the story, with the exception of references to some articles, books and interviews, including one with Judge Salah al-Dalali, who sentenced Cohen to death in 1965.

Syrian political and historical experts have identified ten major errors in the series:

1 – President Amin al-Hafez: The series depicts a special relationship between Cohen and al-Hafez when the latter served as Syria’s military attaché in the Syrian embassy in Buenos Aries, Argentina. However, no evidence exists to support the claim, and al-Hafez himself denied the relationship in a television interview in 2001. He explained that he was in Argentina in 1962, long after Cohen arrived in Damascus, and said he only met Cohen after his arrest in early 1965.

Nevertheless, the supposed friendship was picked up by the Egyptian dailies at the time as part of a campaign against al-Hafez amid political tensions between the two countries. According to a Syrian expert, the narrative was also promoted in Damascus and Tel Aviv to highlight Cohen’s significance on the eve of his execution.

2 – Hafez al-Assad and Amin al-Hafez: Hafez al-Assad was not a lieutenant general, as the series shows. He was an officer deployed in Egypt before assuming a civil position after Syria was separated from Egypt in 1961.

Neither did al-Hafez come to power during the coup on 8 March 1963. He was appointed interior minister in Salah al-Din al-Bitar’s government. Lieutenant General Luay al-Atassi assumed the presidency of the Revolutionary Command Council until the summer of that year. After that, al-Hafez was appointed president of the Council but not of the Syrian Republic. He was not in Damascus on 8 March, and he had nothing to do with the takeover of the general staff in the capital, as the series claims.

3 – Michel Aflaq: Aflaq, a Syrian philosopher and Arab nationalist, never met Cohen and did not give him a list of people to invite to the 8 March soiree at Cohen’s house, including Prime Minister Khalid al-Azm. That evening, al-Azm was at the house of doctor Madani al-Khaimi. According to experts, Aflaq was not privy to the army’s activities during the 8 March coup anyway.

4 – Major General Abd al-Karim Zahreddine was the army chief of staff when Syria split from Egypt. He never set foot in Cohen’s house although his nephew, reservist Madhi Zahreddine, did. Madhi Zahreddine was released from the army on the day of the coup on 8 March. He later assumed a position in an insignificant ministry. He used to meet with Cohen at his house or at the al-Kamal cafe in central Damascus. He was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison in 1965.

5 – Madhi Zahreddine and the battlefront: Zahreddine escorted Cohen to the Syrian battlefront with Israel in 1962. It was claimed by the series that the spy obtained military intelligence during this visit that was vital to Israel’s victory in the Six Day War in 1967. However, there is a five-year gap between the two events, raising questions about exactly how vital Cohen’s intelligence was.

Moreover, all officers deployed at the front were discharged or transferred, and military positions were repeatedly changed after 8 March 1963 and again after the 23 February movement in 1966. According to a Western expert, “Cohen’s mission was not to gather information about the front but crack down on Nazi officers who were staying in Damascus. He was also tasked with following up on the conditions of Jews in the Syrian capital.”

6 – Deputy defence minister: The series claims that Cohen was considered for deputy defence minister in the Syrian government, a position that was only introduced in 1970, five years after his death. Moreover, the position is restricted to military personnel and cannot be occupied by a civilian.

7 – Major General Ahmed Suweidani: Suweidani later became chief of staff in Syria, but he was not the head of al-Hafez’s security in Argentina. The scene in the series where Cohen secretly enters al-Hafez’s office and takes photographs of classified documents is pure fiction. An expert revealed, “Suweidani was suspicious of Cohen from day one. He played a central role in exposing and arresting him in 1965.”

8 – Cohen’s execution: The series shows Majed Sheikh al-Ard doffing his hat to Cohen out of sorrow and respect the moment he was hanged in Damascus in 1965. A historian said, “It is well known, as the series showed, that Sheikh al-Ard was one of [Cohen’s] victims. He met Cohen in 1962 on board a ship that was sailing from Europe to Beirut.”

Cohen ingratiated himself with Sheikh al-Ard and entered Syria with him through Lebanon, posing as an expatriate investor and using the alias Kamil Amin Thabit. Sheikh al-Ard helped Cohen rent a furnished apartment in the Abu Rummaneh neighbourhood in Damascus. The apartment was owned by Haitham Qotb, an employee at the Central Bank of Syria, according to historical information. The historian added, “The relationship between the two men did not go any further as Sheikh al-Ard had no information of use to the spy and because he was away from politics, particularly after the 8 March 1963 coup. Moreover, Sheikh al-Ard once spoke about his admiration of Adolf Hitler, which immediately caused the relationship between him and Cohen to weaken after 1962.”

Sheikh al-Ard did not witness Cohen’s execution and so did not doff his hat to the spy. He was serving a life sentence in Qalat Dimashq Prison in Damascus at the time. He was later transferred to the Palmyra Prison where he reportedly killed himself in his cell.

Neither did al-Hafez or his wife attend the execution. So, the story about al-Hafez’s wife trembling from sorrow on the day of the execution is untrue. Another – and controversial – fabrication was the supposed sexual relationship between Cohen and al-Hafez’s wife at the Syrian embassy in Argentina, allegedly with al-Hafez’s approval.

9 – Infiltration of Syrian society: The series claims that Cohen infiltrated Syrian society and befriended influential figures. According to the minutes of investigation in the presence of French lawyer Jacques Mercier, Cohen only made friends with people lower down the social ladder, avoiding top-ranking officials out of fear of being exposed. One of them was journalist George Seif, who issued Cohen with a press card and introduced him to a pilot assistant at Damascus airport called Elie al-Madh. Seif was later sentenced to ten years of hard labour and al-Madh to six months in prison for assisting Cohen.

Cohen’s other friends included two employees at the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and the Ministry of Tourism and the son of a journalist, who wanted Cohen to marry his sister-in-law, according to historians. A number of young women befriended Cohen, who presented himself as a wealthy, single expatriate, with the hope of marrying him. All the women were subsequently cleared of betrayal charges.

Judge Salah al-Dalali told the author of this article in a press interview in 2004 that Cohen was “just an ordinary spy”, adding: “He was buried in a cave on the al-Dimas road after execution. Later, his remains were dug up and buried in an undisclosed location.” He noted that “most of those who knew the location of the burial were either dismissed from the army or quit their positions”.

10 – Abu Rummaneh neighbourhood: The series depicts Abu Rummaneh, the location of many foreign embassies in Damascus, as similar to Talaat Harb Square in Cairo, Egypt. It also claims that a Russian officer helped to expose Cohen. However, there are four versions of how the spy was exposed: by the Russian officer, by the Indian embassy, which detected nearby radio interference, by the Egyptian intelligence and by Suweidani.

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