Bente Scheller at the Heinrich Böll Stiftung:
Those of you who visited Syria before 2011 may tend to remember their journeys as fondly as I do: A country in which buildings from a variety of eras bear witness to a long history of many peoples and religions. The old town of Damascus in which the Umayyad mosque rises atop the foundations of the ancient Roman temple of Jupiter, an environment characterised by tradition in which people, in between prayer calls and church bells, go about their everyday lives which in turn could be thought to have emerged from the tales of the Arabian Nights.
Engulfed by the scent of jasmine and cardamom coffee, a foreigner can easily forget about the dark side of Syrian life. Syria was not only a country in which you could positively feel the heartbeat of thousands of years of ancient societies, but also a state in which the most enormous security apparatus in the Middle East virtually strangled its citizens.
The widely praised peaceful coexistence of religions was certainly no feat of Hafez al-Assad who had gained hold of power in the country by means of a coup in the 1970s. It was rather a characteristic of Syrian history without which so many small and minuscule communities of different religious affiliations could never have developed and persisted.
Yet his grasp for power brought on a religio-political issue for Hafez al-Assad.
More here. [Thanks to Idrees Ahmad.]