Following a request from Israel, Russia recently asked Syria to return the remains of Mossad agent Eli Cohen, who was caught and executed in 1965 while operating in Syria.
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However, Syrian officials told the Russians they do not know where the Israeli spy is buried, a senior Israeli official has told Haaretz.
The official, who wished to remain unnamed, said Israel had asked Russia several times over the past year to exercise its influence on the Syrian government in the matter. He said the Russian military presence in Syria in the past two years dramatically increased Moscow’s influence on Bashar Assad’s regime.
In the course of his visit in Moscow in March 2016, President Reuven Rivlin broached the Eli Cohen issue at his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. In June 2016, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also raised the subject at a meeting with Putin during his visit in Moscow to mark 25 years of Israeli-Russian diplomatic relations.
In November 2016, during Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to Israel, Netanyahu again asked Russia to intervene in this matter. The issue was not raised during Netanyahu’s last meeting with Putin two weeks ago.
The official said the Russians had promised Israel they would try to help in the matter and asked senior Syrian officials for information about it a number of times. But the answers from Damascus were evasive, he said.
The Syrians told the Russians that the affair was more than 50 years old and there was difficulty in locating Cohen’s burial place, he said.
“The Syrians said they checked and searched, but don’t know where Cohen is buried and so cannot help,” he said. “The Russians were very disappointed with the Syrian answer and expressed dissatisfaction with it.”
The Syrian response is similar to Syrian responses received in the past. In May 2007, Monthir Maosily, who served as bureau chief of the late Syrian leader Amin al Hafiz at the time Cohen was caught, said the Israeli spy’s grave couldn’t be traced because roads and buildings had been built over the area. In an interview to the al Arabiya television news channel, Maosily said at the time that Cohen’s burial place, in Damascus’ Mazze quarter, is today a built-up area with streets and parks and cannot be reached.
In another interview to al Arabiya in August 2008, Maosily said Cohen’s body had been moved three times from one grave to another, due to the government’s fear of an Israeli military attempt to retrieve it. Maosily said the issue of returning Cohen’s bones to Israel was discussed with President Hafez Assad in the Israel-Syria negotiation rounds in the 1990s. He said Assad asked the Syrian security forces to find the body, but they said they didn’t know where Cohen was buried.
Eli Cohen, seen as the greatest Israeli spy ever to have operated in any Arab state, immigrated to Israel in 1957 after being deported from Egypt, where he was born and lived until then. In 1959 he was recruited to Unit 188 of the Israel Defense Forces, which dealt with operating agents, gathering intelligence and special missions in enemy countries. In 1961 Cohen was sent to Argentina to establish a cover story as an Argentinian of Syrian descent called Kamel Amin Thaabet. At the end of that year he was sent to Europe to bolster his cover story as the representative of a Belgian company, who was dispatched to Syria.
In January 1962 Cohen came to Syria for the first time and settled in Damascus. He forged close ties with many senior Syrian officials and obtained detailed intelligence on the Syrian army and its activity, on the Golan Heights front and on the decision making in the regime. In October 1963 the unit Cohen served in was moved from IDF Intelligence to the Mossad, the Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations.
In January 1965 Syrian security forces stormed Cohen’s apartment in Damascus and arrested him while he was transmitting to his operators in Israel. Two months later he was put on trial that lasted less than two weeks, during which he was not given a legal defense or the right to appeal.
Cohen was sentenced to death and executed by hanging on May 18 1965. His body was left hanging for seven hours in a Damascus square before being taken to an unknown burial site. Israel asked to have his bones returned several times during the talks with Syria during the 1990s and in the negotiations with Syria during Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s tenure in 2007-2008.