In September 1919, Lloyd George and Georges Clemenceau entered an agreement to replace the British troops occupying Cilicia by a French force.
First elements of this new army came from the former 156ème division d’infanterie of the Allied Army of the Orient, under general Julien Dufieux command. This division de Cilicie included a metropolitan regiment, the 412ème régiment d'infanterie, a colonial régiment, the 17ème régiment de tirailleurs sénégalais, a French Armenian Legion regiment and the 18ème régiment de tirailleurs algériens. In 1920 this division became the first of four divisions du Levant.
In 1920, the French were given a mandate over Syria and Lebanon by the League of Nations. During this period Syria was known as the French Mandate of Syria and Lebanon was known as the French Mandate of Lebanon.
From 19 April to 26 April 1920 the San Remo Conference was held in Sanremo, Italy. After this conference was concluded, the short-lived monarchy of King Faisal's was defeated at the Battle of Maysalun by French troops under the command of General Mariano Goybet, during the Franco-Syrian War. The French army under General Henri Gouraud then occupied the Mandate of Syria and the Mandate of Lebanon.
A force called the Syrian Legion was raised by the French authorities shortly after the establishment of the two mandates. This comprised both cavalry and infantry units and was drawn mainly from minority groups within Syria itself.
Following the Druse revolt of 1925 to 1927, the Syrian Legion was reorganised into the "Special Troops of the Levant" (Troupes Speciales du Levant) augmented by North African infantry (tirailleurs) and cavalry (spahis), French Foreign Legion (Légion étrangère), and Colonial Infantry/Artillery units (both French and Senegalese). The whole force constituted the Army of the Levant and was responsible for keeping order in both French mandates during the interwar period.
The French Mandate Administration followed a principle of divide and rule in organising the Troupes Speciales. As far as possible the Sunni Muslim Arabs, who made up about 65% of the population of Syria, were excluded from service with the Troupes Speciales, who were drawn mainly from Druze, Christian, Circassian and ‘Alawi minorities. During the period from 1926 to 1939, the Army of the Levant included between 10,000 and 12,000 locally engaged troops organised into: ten battalions of infantry (mostly ‘Alawis), four squadrons of cavalry (Druze, Circassian and mixed Syrian), three companies of camel corps (méharistes), engineer, armoured car, and support units. In addition, there were 9 companies of Lebanese light infantry (chasseurs libanais) and 22 squadrons of Druze, Circassian, and Kurdish mounted infantry forming the auxiliary troops (Troupes Supplementaires). This latter force provided a form of military police (gendarmerie) for internal security purposes and were primarily deployed in the areas of their recruitment. Some of the Lebanese units were trained as ski troops for mountain service and wore the berets of the French elite mountain infantry (Chasseurs Alpins).
By 1938, the Troupes Speciales numbered 10,000, with 306 officers of whom only 88 were French. A military academy (École Militaire) was established at Homs to train Syrian and Lebanese officers and specialist non-commissioned officers (NCOs).
Uniforms of the Troupes Speciales varied according to arm of service but showed a mixture of French and Levantine influences. Indigenous personnel wore either the keffiyeh headdress (red for Druze and white for other units), fezzes or turbans. The Circassian mounted troops wore a black full dress that closely resembled that of the Caucasian Cossacks, complete with astrakhan hats (see photograph above). A common feature across the Troupes Speciales was the use of "violette" (purple-red) as a facing colour on tunic collar patches, belts and kepis. Squadron or branch insignia often included regional landmarks such as the cedars of Lebanon or the main mosque of Damascus.
On 22 June, after the Fall of France, the forces in the Levant sided with the Vichy Government of Marshal Philippe Pétain. In 1941, British Commonwealth, Free French and other Allied forces launched "Operation Exporter," the Syria-Lebanon Campaign. They attacked the Army of the Levant from the British Mandate of Palestine and from the Kingdom of Iraq, recently occupied during the Anglo-Iraqi War. On 8 June 1941 at 2 am, British, Australian, and Free French forces crossed into Syria and Lebanon.
During "Operation Exporter," the Army of the Levant was commanded by General Henri Dentz. Dentz was also the High Commissioner of the Levant. Lieutenant-General Joseph-Antoine-Sylvain-Raoul de Verdillac was second in command at the time of the British invasion.
In 1941 the Army of the Levant was still divided into troops from Metropolitan France, colonial troops, and the "Special Troops of the Levant" (Troupes Speciales du Levant).
The regular French troops consisted of four battalions of the 6th Foreign Infantry Regiment (according to Dentz, these were the best troops available to the Vichy French command) and three battalions of the 24th Colonial Infantry Regiment (French regulars enlisted for overseas service). The latter were brought up to strength by amalgamating them with two garrison battalions of Senegalese troops to form the "Mixed Colonial Regiment" (Regiment Mixte Coloniale).
The Troupes Speciales were formed by 11 battalions of infantry: three Lebanese light infantry battalions (bataillons de chasseurs Libanais) and eight Syrian battalions (bataillons de Levant). In addition, there were two artillery groups and supporting units. The "special troops" included at least 5,000 cavalry organized in squadrons of around 100 men each. Included in the cavalry force were 15 squadrons of Circassian cavalry of which three were motorized. The Troupes Speciales were led by indigenous officers and non-commissioned officers with a small cadre of French officers.
The African troops comprised six Algerian, three Tunisian, three Senegalese, and one Moroccan rifle (tirailleur) battalions.
The contingent of North African cavalry consisted of the 4th Tunisian, the 1st Moroccan, and the 8th Algerian Spahis and amounted to about 7,000 men. Most were on horseback or in light trucks, while a few were equipped with armored cars. There was also a mechanized cavalry element provided by the 6th and 7th "African Light Horse" (Chasseurs d' Afrique) which totalled 90 tanks (mostly Renault R-35 with a few Renault FTs) and a similar number of armored cars.
The artillery available to the Vichy French consisted of 120 field and medium guns and numbered about 6,700 men.
The Vichy French Air Force (Armée de l'Air de Vichy) in the Levant was relatively strong at the outbreak of hostilities in 1939. But, in 1940, many of the aircraft stationed in Syria and Lebanon were sent back to Metropolitan France. This left the Vichy French in the Levant with only a number of obsolete models. However, alarmed by the growing threat of British invasion, a fighter group was dispatched from Algeria before the invasion. Once the fighting started, three additional groups were flown from France and from North Africa. This brought the strength of the Vichy French air force in Lebanon and Syria up to 289 aircraft, including about 35 state-of-the-art Dewoitine D.520 fighters and some new, US-built Glenn Martin 167 light bombers. This initially gave the Vichy French an edge over the Allied air units. But the loss of Vichy French aircraft was very high: 179 aircraft were lost during the campaign, most having been destroyed on the ground.
French naval forces
Two destroyers and three submarines of the French Navy (Marine Nationale) were available to support the Vichy forces in the Levant.
On 12 April 1940, after the invasion and fall of Poland, the Polish Independent Carpathian Rifle Brigade was formed from Polish exiles in the Levant. While not part of the Army of the Levant, the brigade specialized in mountain warfare and was to be the Polish addition to Allied plans for landings in the Balkans. On 30 June, the brigade was transported to Palestine.
Following the Vichy defeat in 1941, the French and African components of the Army of the Levant were for the most part repatriated to their territories of origin. A minority (including some Lebanese and Syrians) took the opportunity to join the Free French Forces.
Free French General Georges Catroux took control of Syria after the defeat of the Vichy French. On 26 November 1941, shortly after taking up this post, Catroux recognised the independence of Lebanon and Syria in the name of Free France. Even so, a period of military occupation followed.
On 8 November 1943, after elections, Lebanon became an independent state. On 27 February 1945, Lebanon declared war on Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan.
On 1 January 1944, Syria followed Lebanon and also became an independent state. On 26 February 1945, Syria declared war on Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan.
The Troupes Spéciales had remained in existence during the military occupation, still under French authority until August 1945. Most then transferred to the new Syrian Army. The founders of the post-independence Lebanese Army also trained as officers in the Troupes Spéciales.