Russia is about to hand over the remains of the notorious Israeli spy Eli Cohen, who was executed in Syria, Israeli media claimed earlier this week. The reports based on information provided by anonymous sources in the Syrian opposition hold that a Russian delegation arrived to Damascus, took the body and left the country with it. Despite zero evidence these claims caused a huge commotion in Syria and Israel, forcing both countries to pay closer attention to Russia’s actions. This may be the very outcome desired by those who have been spreading these rumors.
Who Is Eli Cohen
A Mossad agent, Eli Cohen successfully infiltrated the highest echelons of the Syrian government, taking the position of senior adviser to the Minister of Defense in the 1950-s. He had been gathering sensitive information on the Syrian army until the discovery of his true identity which was followed by the execution in 1965. The intelligence provided by Cohen laid the foundation of the Israeli success in the war of 1967 when the Golan Heights were occupied. The Israeli government and Cohen’s family have multiple times requested the Syrian authorities to return Cohen’s remains, but until recently it was believed that the whereabouts of his body was lost.
Official Reaction: Silence and Refusal
The claims made by anonymous sources have not received any official confirmation so far. Moreover, Russian authorities issued a statement, strongly denying these rumors and urging the media to show a more “accurate, professional and honest approach to coverage of such sensitive issues.”
This snap reaction is quite understandable: supposing the opposition sources were right, Russia had had to discover Cohen’s place of burial, identify the body and convince the Syrians of giving permission to transport the remains out of the country.
The single evidence, albeit indirect, in favor of the possibility of such scenario is the recovery of the remains of Israeli soldier Zachary Baumel who went missing in 1982 in Lebanon. Russian military assisted by Syrian counterparts retrieved the body and returned them to Israel. However, any comparison between the two cases would obviously be incorrect due to the sensitivity of the Cohen’s issue.
Neither the absence of evidence, not the dubious character of the sources prevented the “Russia returned Cohen’s remains to Israel” story from spreading in the media like wildfire. The incredibly appropriate circumstances – lucky timing and sensational nature of the news – hint at a planned in advance dissemination operation. Who could stand behind it? Those who benefit from tensions between Syria and Russia, as well as between Russia and Israel.
Not only “anonymous sources in the Syrian opposition” but also their foreign backers, namely the US, fit perfectly in this scheme. Washington has multiple times expressed discontent over the rising Russian influence in the US allies in the Middle East, including Lebanon, Jordan, and of course Israel. Exploiting such a sensitive issue as the fate of the remains of Eli Cohen, who is considered a national hero in Israel and universally hated in Syria, is an ideal instrument to pursue the US interests in the region.