Some of the Druze in more mixed areas, such as Idlib province in the northwest of Syria, joined protests and even fought with units of the Free Syrian Army early on. But what has kept many Druze on the sidelines in their ancestral homeland until now is a fear of attacks by Sunni religious extremists among the rebels, some of whom consider the Druze faith to be apostasy.
Since last summer, there have been at least four car bombs in Jaramana, a Damascus suburb with predominantly Druze and Christian residents. One double car bombing in late November left at least 45 dead and more than 120 wounded, according to opposition activists.
The Syrian government has routinely blamed the attacks in Jaramana on “terrorists,” its label for the opposition. But opposition activists say the government itself is carrying out the attacks to heighten fears of sectarian warfare.
For some, the danger seems all too real. “The biggest danger for the Druze is the sectarian violence against them,” said Aline, a 24 year-old Druze woman from Jaramana who recently fled to Beirut to escape the violence. “In the end nobody knows when the situation will get out of hand.”
Yet there is now even a Druze-dominated unit of rebel fighters, the Bani Maarouf battalion, operating in the Damascus suburbs, including Jaramana, which was formed in late December.
Driven to rebel
What has led some Druze to support the opposition is what has also motivated many other ordinary Syrians: The government’s apparent inability to provide security or even the most basic services, according to opposition activists.
“They have lost all the basics of daily life,” a Druze activist who goes by Ziad said in an interview in Beirut, where he moved recently to escape the violence at home. “There is no bread, no gas, nothing.”
Notable Druze leaders have also weighed in, calling on the community to rise up against Assad. There are significant Druze minorities in Lebanon and Israel and, even though they are separated by borders, they still share a common bond.
“The Druze in Syria should join the opposition,” said Walid Jumblatt, an influential Druze leader in Lebanon who has a following across the region. “Their future is with the Syrian people. They can’t join a repressive government to kill people.”
The divided loyalties among the Druze, with some supporting the government and some opposing it, have even split families. Tamer, the fighter from Sweida, says some of the people in his own village no longer talk to him because of his ties to the rebels.
“We can’t turn back,” Tamer said. “We are exhausted from this conflict, but what can we do? This government treats us like we don’t exist.”
Suzan Haidamous and Ahmed Ramadan contributed to this report.