As the sound of shells thudding into the Damascus suburbs kept me awake, I got a taste of many Syrians' fears of the regime's pervasive security forces. Every morning I held my breath when turning the ignition of my car. Footsteps on the stairs outside my door made me sit upright on the sofa.
The regime remains strong, say many.
State employees are still being paid on time each month. Police can still be seen at their traffic-light posts every morning. Families continue to turn out in droves to eat sandwiches at the few city malls where electric generators help maintain a semblance of normalcy.
Damascenes have lived with this regime for decades and know it only really understands the way of the gun. It is a regime that scoffs at political ideals, a family fiefdom forged long ago in an absurd tribal pride that values a misplaced honor and personal ego over all. It can smuggle and steal, and it is not afraid to shoot and kill --but it will not negotiate or compromise.
For many Syrians, the political opposition offers little. Flying the free-Syria flag off a bridge in the capital for five minutes will not hasten the end of the regime. Blocking roads by pouring diesel in front of cars, as happened recently in the capital's center, will not draw Damascus's silent majority -- those who bought Kias and Hyundais in 2009 -- to the side of the opposition.
Nor does the opposition's ever-escalating violence hold any prospect of bringing President Bashar al-Assad's regime to its knees. This month, members of the Free Syrian Army surrounded an army checkpoint outside Homs and tried to convince the troops to "defect and join" them. They failed -- and a strategy of trying to intimidate the Syrian army through superior firepower is bound to fail on a grander scale.
The soldiers and security officers bombarding Homs's restive neighborhoods and shooting up Daraa and Idlib won't lay down their weapons and run en masse to join the defectors anytime soon. They think that the regime is right and that they are locked in a struggle to the death with the gunmen. And they are fighting armed men, now.
The regime will spend hours of broadcasting time telling Syrians how the journalists who have been reporting from Homs -- and are now trapped there -- entered Syria illegally and are probably assisting the "terrorist gangs." And they will convince thousands.
Although perhaps inevitable, the militarization of the opposition has been the greatest disaster of the uprising. The regime has exploited this fact by granting visas for dozens of foreign journalists to make the case that the regime is, in fact, fighting armed gangs.
And support for those armed men is far from universal. "When the army sees men with guns, they will try kill them; they will shoot them down," a youth in Saqba told me this month. "I hate the Free Syrian Army. They are gone, and we are here with our smashed homes."
Bearing witness to a country falling apart is a sobering experience. Cars don't stop at traffic lights or for traffic police. Security officers manning checkpoints slip their hands into cars' glove compartments without asking. But when I speak to Syrians, the most troubling aspect -- though few appear to realize it -- are the growing divisions between them.
Christians complain how beggars take all their money back to the mosque. Most Damascenes, who as one observer eloquently noted "are waiting for a winner and then they will support them," don't give a damn about their fellow Syrians in Homs and Daraa.
But one thing is certain: The Assad regime will fall. Its policy of maintaining thousands of security minions at dozens of locations across the country is unsustainable. The cash it has hoarded and stolen will run out, and it will no longer be able to pay its gangsters and public-sector employees, leading to millions more hungry Syrians on the streets calling for change. At some point, probably within 18 months, army defections will reach a tipping point, and massive numbers of Sunni soldiers will run home or rush to defend besieged neighborhoods such as Baba Amro. Meanwhile, Christians and other minorities will refuse to pick up guns and shoot their fellow Syrians for Assad.
Syria's uprising, however, may not end with Assad's demise. Even after the dictatorship crumbles, there will be 22 million people who will have a hell of a lot of issues with one other -- and Assad will no longer be around to be blamed for the poor state of their lives. Responsibility for Syria will not come from the Syrian National Council, the Free Syrian Army, or the local policeman -- it will have to come from each individual. Syrians will have to decide for themselves where they want their country to go.