GOLAN HEIGHTS (AP) — Syria’s embattled leader, Bashar Assad, appears to be losing one of his last bastions of reliable support: the Druze Arab community of the Golan Heights.

In the snow-covered villages of this strategic highland, Druze are quietly breaking a long-standing code of silence and — for the first time since Israel captured the Golan from Syria in 1967 — holding protests against the Syrian government for its brutal crackdown on opponents. Anti-Syria graffiti has sprouted up, and hundreds of people have joined a Golan-linked Facebook group critical of Assad.

“Support for the opposition is growing each week, you could say, if not every day,” said Salman Fakhr Deen, a researcher at al-Marsad, a Golan-based human rights group. “But it isn’t dominant. It isn’t militant.”

He says that on several occasions in recent weeks, dozens and at time hundreds of protesters have gathered in the Golan’s main square, dominated by a sculpture of legendary Druze warrior Sultan Pasha Atrash, to raise their voices against the regime on the other side of the frontier.

These small gatherings are far from the crowds of hundreds of thousands, of raw emotion and fist-pumping anger, of the mass uprisings elsewhere in the Middle East over the past 14 months.

But the very act of stepping into the square is a major departure for the Golan’s 20,000-member Druze community, which historically has been extremely reluctant to openly criticize the autocratic Assad family that has ruled Syria for the past four decades.

A  pro-Assad rally in the Druze village of Majdal Shams (photo credit: Matanya Tausig/Flash90)

A pro-Assad rally in the Druze village of Majdal Shams (photo credit: Matanya Tausig/Flash90)

Some, particularly older residents who remember the days of Syrian rule, maintain a strong affinity for Syria. Others feared they might be harmed if the territory is ever returned to Syria, or had concerns that the Syrian regime would retaliate against relatives across the frontier.

But faced with the mounting scope of carnage in Syria, where thousands of people, mostly civilians, are believed to have been killed in an 11-month uprising against Assad, small numbers of Golan Druze are bringing their criticism out in the open.

The Druze are a secretive offshoot of Islam whose adherents live primarily in Syria, Israel, Lebanon and Jordan.

Israel captured the Golan, a strategic plateau overlooking northern Israel, in the 1967 Mideast war and subsequently annexed the territory. That move has never been internationally recognized, and Syria has demanded the return of the entire Golan as a condition for a peace.

Although they enjoy good relations with Israeli authorities, and a majority were born after 1967, the Golan Druze identify emotionally and through family ties with Syria. Some residents study in Syria or travel there to marry.

In the early weeks of the uprising against Assad last March, they lined up staunchly behind him, at least publicly. There were no demonstrations backing his opponents, and those who would express concern over Syria’s problems would often attribute them to the coterie around Assad and not the Syria leader himself.

But the bloodletting has surged since.

More than 5,400 Syrians were killed in 2011, according to UN figures, and activists say hundreds more have died in the first few weeks of this year.

To be sure, many Golan Druze will still publicly offer unstinting support for the Assad regime, insisting that media reports of bloodshed are overblown or fabricated altogether.

“The situation was good,” said Wissam Safadi, one of 15 Druze who returned to the Golan on Monday for breaks from university studies in Syria funded by the Assad government.

Before they came home, six Druze women departed for Syria on mourning visits for relatives who died in Syria. Both groups passed to and from the Golan through a passage in the Syrian town of Quneitra just several hundred yards (meters) away. The Israeli and Syrian militaries control each side of the passage, with an internationally monitored buffer zone in the middle.

“Why would I be afraid?” asked Rima Agabani, one of the six women on mourning calls. “Nobody goes to their country afraid. ”

But there are also signs of cracking support.

In addition to the public protests, activists have scrawled graffiti, or carried balloons reading “Freedom,” ”Democracy” and, “Mass murder is a war crime.” In one case, they hoisted on a mountaintop the red, white, green and black flag of the 20th-century Arab revolt against Ottoman rule, they said.

While dissident graffiti has been painted over, Twitter and Facebook groups have offered other vehicles for protest.

The Coordinating Committee of the Occupied Golan has 1,022 “likes” on its Facebook page. One image it has posted shows the word “Syria” written in red dripping ink, with the caption, “Syria is hemorrhaging.”

Ultimately, though, opponents and defenders of the regime want to preserve harmony in their mountaintop community, and the dissent has been peaceful, Fakhr Deen said.

The Druze of the Golan “don’t want their society riven over Assad.”

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.