Members of Syria’s Druze community, a small but significant religious minority, are joining the opposition in bigger numbers, ramping up pressure on the beleaguered government of President Bashar al-Assad, according to opposition activists and rebel military commanders.

As the Syrian conflict has devolved into a bloody sectarian war, with many Sunni Muslims backing the opposition, some of the country’s minorities, including the Druze and Christians, have largely sat on the sidelines.

Assad has managed to maintain the support of many of his fellow Alawites, who adhere to an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and keeping the support of the minority groups has been a key goal of his government, which has tried to portray the conflict as a foreign plot rather than a homegrown challenge to its authority.

“The Assad government is trying to keep the Druze and other minority communities at bay to make sure they don’t side with the opposition,” said Farid Khazen, a Lebanese parliamentarian and professor of Middle East politics at the American University of Beirut.

The Druze community in Syria numbers only around 700,000, out of a total population of some 21 million, and has a history of rebelling under authoritarian leaders, rising up during the rule of the Ottomans as well as the French. Although there are communities scattered across the country, the bulk of the Druze, whose secretive religion is an offshoot of Islam, live in the mountainous region of southeast Syria.

A look at the Syrian uprising nearly two years later. Thousands of Syrians have died and President Bashar al-Assad remains in power, despite numerous calls by the international community for him to step down.

In the past couple of months, according to opposition activists, there have been more than a half-dozen anti-government protests in Sweida province, the ancestral homeland of the Druze in the southeast that had remained relatively quiet since the uprising began nearly two years ago. And in mid-December, rebel fighters announced the formation of the first revolutionary military council for Sweida province. The council coordinated the most significant battle in the Druze region since the conflict began.

In that mid-January clash, dozens of Druze fighters joined a rebel assault on a radar base on a mountaintop in Sweida province. The fighters killed several government soldiers but were ultimately routed by troops that outgunned them; the fighters retreated down the mountainside, suffering many casualties as they pulled back, according to rebel fighters who participated in the battle.

Still, some of the rebels considered the operation to be a victory. “The symbolic meaning of the Druze participating in this operation was just as important as destroying the radar tower,” said a 36-year-old Druze fighter who goes by the name Tamer and participated in the battle after joining the Sweida rebels a few months ago.

The rebel fighting force paid a high price in the battle: Among those killed was Khaldoun Zeineddine, one of the first Druze officers to defect from the Syrian army, who was seen as a folk hero among the Druze who have joined the opposition.

A video posted online shows the aftermath of the battle with the bodies of several rebel fighters lying in snow, some of them with arms frozen in the air.

A government soldier with an accent that is distinctly Alawite, the sect of many senior officers in the military, walks by insulting the corpses and filming the scene. “I curse their religion and their God,” the soldier says contemptuously on the video as another soldier kicks a corpse.

Fears of sectarian violence

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.

Timeline: Major events in Syria’s tumultuous uprising that began in March 2011.

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.