Syrians of all stripes and colours rushed to watch Netflix’s new miniseries, The Spy about the life of Israeli spy Eli Cohen, who served in Damascus in the 1960s. Most were unimpressed with what they saw, however, feeling greatly insulted by the production. In addition to being riddled with historical inaccuracies, it depicted them as a gullible, careless, and very naive society.
The work’s lead actor, Sacha Baron Cohen, is a Jew, however, while its director Gideon Raff is an Israeli filmmaker, perhaps explaining why from start to finish in all six episodes, audiences will feel nothing but sympathy and respect for Eli Cohen, who is still considered a national hero in Israel.
Cohen was an Egyptian born Jew who joined Mossad and was dispatched to Argentina in 1961 to befriend Syrian general Amin Al Hafez (played by American-Palestinian actor Waleed Zuaiter), then serving as military attache to Buenos Aires. He pretended to be a wealthy Syrian emigre, wanting to do business in Damascus. A special friendship develops between the two men, which lasts until Cohen’s execution — at Hafez’s orders — in May 1965.
Speaking to a satellite television channel in 2001, Hafez denied all rumours that he met Cohen in Argentina, claiming that he was in Moscow at the time and only reached Argentina after Cohen arrived in Damascus in February 1962.
Based on falsehood
The Spy says that future Syrian army commander General Ahmad Suwaydani was also based in Buenos Aires, serving as director of security for Amin Al Hafez. That part is false, since Suwaydani never had such a job, but what’s true is that he mistrusted Cohen from Day One and played a crucial role in his arrest, four years later.
At an embassy dinner in Argentina, Cohen escapes from the crowd, jumps out the window, and enters Amin Al Hafez’s office, while the general is busy making martinis downstairs. He secretly takes photos of important documents — another James Bond feat that didn’t happen in real life. Nor did Amin Al Hafez’s wife “grab him by the [expletive] …” a remark that struck a particularly raw nerve in Syrian society, given that she was a conservative woman from Aleppo, rather than a seductress, who went on to become First Lady of Syria in 1963.
After entering Syria, Cohen is asked by Hafez and Baath Party founder Michel Aflaq to host a series of parties at his home, in order to distract top officials. One of those parties, according to the show, was on March 8, 1963, the day the Baath Party seized power in Syria.
That part is entirely false. For starters, Aflaq — a civilian philosopher — had no clue that junior officers in the army were planning to seize power in Damascus. Nor did Cohen, for that matter, and no historical source points to any connection between him and the coup of 1963.
The work shows that Amin Al Hafez became president of Syria immediately after the coup but in real life he only assumed the task of interior minister from March to July 1963. Hafez became head of a presidential council (not president) after the resignation of General Louai Al Atasi later that summer.
Thanks to a close friendship between the two men, Cohen is taken on tours of the Syrian front lines, which are shown as a giant wild orgy, filled with drunken officers and prostitutes. He advised authorities to plant trees that he presents as a gift, “to let the shoulders have some shade.” Those trees were used to identify positions of Syrian troops during the Six Day War of 1967.
Cohen dubs as a furniture dealer in Damascus, wrapping Damascene couches and chairs with local newspapers, which he sends to Europe. Those newspapers are subsequently used by Mossad to learn more about Syria.
So senior did Cohen become that according to popular lore, he was earmarked for a top government post after 1963. Some accounts say that he was nominated to become minister of state, while The Spy says that he was earmarked as “deputy defence minister.” That too is false, simply because such a post did not exist in Syria back then and was only created after Hafez Al Assad came to power in 1970.
And speaking of Al Assad, his photo appears hanging on the walls of Mossad in 1962. The only problem is that that particular photograph shows him wearing the rank of Lieutenant General, a post that he did not attain until after 1970. At the time of the story, he was a Lieutenant Colonel.
And finally, a big loophole lies in the city of Damascus, where most of the plot unfolds. It does not look like Damascus or sound like Damascus. Nor do its residents, for that matter, making the work — from start to finish — seem hauntingly inaccurate.
— Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is also the author of Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the New Jihad.