Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-846f6c7c4f-6khh2 Total loading time: 0.384 Render date: 2022-07-07T12:52:04.487Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "useRatesEcommerce": false, "useNewApi": true } hasContentIssue true

Les Troupes Spéciales: Religious and Ethnic Recruitment, 1916–46

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 April 2009

N. E. Bou-Nacklie
Department of Humanities, Johnson State College, Johnson, Vt. 05656, U.S.A.


In 1918 British and French troops occupied the Arabic-speaking regions of the Ottoman Empire and by 1920 had expelled the Arab nationalist regime in Damascus and divided the area between themselves as they had agreed to do in the Sykes–Picot treaty signed two years earlier. Out of their share, the French created in 1920 the two Mandates of Syria and Lebanon with their own locally recruited military organization, first called the Syrian Legion and later the Troupes Spéciales, which were combined for both countries.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1993

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


01 Longrigg, Stephen, Syria and Lebanon under the French Mandate (London: Oxford University Press, 1958), 158Google Scholar.

02 Beeri, Elizer, Army Officers in Arab Politics and Society (New York: Praeger, 1970), 97Google Scholar. Philip Khoury, Patrick Seale, and Albert Hourani, among others, argue along the same lines. A distinction must be made here between Sunnis and Sunni Arabs. The former were a majority in the Syrian–Lebanese population and the latter were a minority. It was against the Sunni Arabs that recruitment discrimination was supposed to have occurred.

03 Khoury, Philip S., Syria and the French Mandate: The Politics of Arab Nationalism, 1920–1945 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987), 89Google Scholar.

04 Chief of Finance Bureau, , Beirut. “Note sur l'organisation de l'administration de la future armée syrienne,” unnumbered document of 23 12 1948Google Scholar, carton 4H-454, Archives de Vincennes (henceforth A.V.), Paris.

05 It must be emphasized here that the Troupes Spéciales were a paramilitary organization for both Mandates with one officer corps, one budget, one academy, one administration. Although sedentary Sunni Arabs, the group against which the French supposedly discriminated, were a majority in Syria proper, they were a minority in the populations of both Mandates. See calculations and explanations in Tables 1 and 2.

06 Neither the Druze Turshan nor the ʿAlawi al-Bashaghiras constitute a religious sect. Rather, they are political factions within religious communities. Al-Bashaghiras, referred to as such by Syrian historians, appear in French documents as “les Bechargas” who lived in the town of Bashraghi in the ʿAlawi region. See “Rapport sur les opérations dans les territoires des alaouites, mai–aôut, 1921,” file 2 A2-A20, carton 4H-249, A.V.; Riḍā, ʿAlī, Qussat al-kifāh al-waṭanī fī sūriyya: ʿAskariyyān wa siyāsiyyān hattā al-jalāʾ (Aleppo: Maṭbaʿat al-Ḥadītha, 1979)Google Scholar.

07 With the exception of Arab Sunnis, no other group in the region had a tradition of joining the regular army. Druze and Cherkess had a martial, but not a military, tradition in the sense that they had a good record in guerrilla war but had not been enrolled in a regular army for centuries.

08 For their arrival, their weapons, and so on, see Captain Mercier, to minister of defense (henceforth Defense), “Conclusion d'ensemble,” unnumbered document dated 2 11 1917Google Scholar, file 4, carton 4H-38, A.V. Their organization and deeds are discussed in Historique sommaire du DFPS,” Document 4685, order 1 of 20 04 1917Google Scholar, file 1, carton 4H-1, A.V. The DFPS was supposed to be a “representative” French unit in the Allied and British-led army in Egypt.

09 Gautherot, Gustave, La France en Syrie el en Cilicie (Paris: Librairie independant, 1920), 30Google Scholar.

10 For recruitment of pro-Allied local elements, see report by General Bailloud, inspector general of French troops in Egypt and Palestine, “Considérations générales, origines et formation de la Légion d'Orient, 25 juillet 1917,” file 3, carton 4H-11, A.V. For recruitment of overseas Armenians, Syrians, and Lebanese, see Piépape, Colonel, commander of DFPS, to commander of base in Egypt, untitled document 1867 of 26 02 1918Google Scholar, file 1, carton 4H-38, A.V. The Armenians were mostly from the Turkish army's labor battalions who either deserted or surrendered to the Allies.

11 For the reasons for the recruitment of Armenians and the committees that made this possible, as well as recruiting Lebanese and Syrians resident in Egypt, see Bailloud, to Defense, document 55, 15 08 1917Google Scholar, carton 7N-2150, A.V. For the problems of recruiting overseas Syrians, and Lebanese, , see unsigned and unnumbered document of 25 02 1915Google Scholar, file 1, carton 4H-29, A.V.

12 Lefèvre-Pontalis, , French plenipotentiary in Egypt, to Ministry of External Affairs, unnumbered document of 26 09 1918Google Scholar, file 7, carton 4H-38, A.V. In the first few months only six Syrian–Lebanese residents in Egypt joined, while those overseas preferred to contribute financially. This embarrassed the French. See unsigned document, “Décision tentative pour fonder la Légion d'Orient, 11 juillet 1917,” document 10.483–1, file 1, carton 4H-38, A.V. Turkish persecution of the Armenians had been going on since 1895 and, as a result, Armenian resistance had developed.

13 General Gouraud to Defense. Rapport sur la situation des troupes au Levant,” document 189/IG of 1 03 1920Google Scholar, file 3, carton 7N-4159, A.V.; General Gamelin to Defense. “Origines des troupes auxiliaries du Levant, “document 438/G of 29 03 1919Google Scholar, file 1, carton 4H-2, A.V. In both cases, the generals emphasized the importance of recruiting from that group.

14 Compte rendu de la mission de l'officier interprète Mercier: Exécution des préscription des instructions, projet de Shukri Ghanem, tendant à l'organization d'une armée syrienne autonome,” document 6786–9/11 of 11 09 1917Google Scholar, file 4, carton 4H-38, A.V. The British had the power to do this because of the small size of the DFPS and the Légion. General Hamelin, , French area commander, to Defense, documents 67/G of 13 November 1918 and 438/G of 29 03 1919Google Scholar, file 5, carton 4H-2, A.V. He pointed out that the area allotted to the French had Muslims from whom he needed to recruit. His resentment and the British high-handedness were reported in the following documents: Hamelin, to Defense, document 438/G of 29 03 1919Google Scholar, file 5, carton 4H-2, A.V.; minister of external affairs to Defense, document 1938 of 4 04 1918Google Scholar, file 3, carton 4H-39, A.V.; external affairs to prime minister, document 3100 of 8 04 1918Google Scholar, file 3, carton 4H-39, A.V.

15 The mechanics of their efforts are explained in Defense to Romieu, document 1233–9/11 of 17 02 1918Google Scholar, file 1, carton 7N-2148, A.V. Minister of external affairs, decrying Britain's attitude, ordered the unit demobilized even though they promised that they would use the unit only in Muslim areas. Document 1398 of 4 04 1918Google Scholar, file 3, carton 4H-39, A.V. See Hamelin, to Defense, document 67/G of 13 11 1918Google Scholar, file 5, carton 4H-2, A.V. The French thought that the British wanted them to lookonly as the protectors of the Christians.

16 The French had continued contact with the patriarch through the Syrian island of Arwad; see Ajay, Nicholas, “Political Intrigue and Suppression in Lebanon during World War I,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 5 (Spring 1974): 147Google Scholar. The recruits were taken from Arwad to Cyprus where their training commenced. Apart from Maronites and Muslims, the French had their eyes on the Druze. In a study of the Druze–Turkish war of 1896 in southern Syria, French officers argued for an alliance with the Druze; see Janin's, Captain “Sujet d'une intervention dans la Turquie d'Asie. Intérêts français à sauvegarder,” in Études geographique, historique, et statistiqueGoogle Scholar, file 1, carton 7N-4192, A.V.

17 Bailloud, to Defense, document 55, 15 08 1917Google Scholar, carton 7N-2150, A.V. In early 1916, a groupof fifty Maronite and Sunni Lebanese went to Arwad to join the French and were grouped in the Syrian Legion. Both groups apparently wanted to play at soldiering and would tolerate neither discipline nor training. Threats proved meaningless and punishment resulted in riots. After the court martial, andunder British pressure, the unit was demobilized.

18 Ibid., 50.

19 Bailloud, to Defense, document 7913–9/11 of 4 08 1917Google Scholar, file 1, carton 7N-2150, A.V. For numbers in these units see document 546–9/11 of 18 01 1918Google Scholar, file 1, carton 4H-38, Romieu, A.V. to Defense, “Situation de récrues,” document 472–9/11 of 19 01 1918Google Scholar, file 1, carton 4H-38, A.V. The Legion had 1,172 men in July 1917 and 3,397 in 12 1918Google Scholar.

20 Hamelin, to Defense, “Organisation des troupes auxiliaires du Levant,” document 438/G of 29 03 1919Google Scholar, file 2, carton 4H-2, A.V. Two more Armenian battalions and four more Syrian companies were authorized.

21 The incident that triggered the clashes took place at the Café de l'Europe in the largely Muslim sector of Ras Beirut. An Armenian tried to purchase tobacco with an IOU which the storekeeper refused. A dispute quickly developed into an Armenian–Lebanese-Muslim riot, which ended with four dead and sixteen wounded.

22 Hamelin, to Defense, document 53/G-ll of 12 01 1919, A.V.Google Scholar

23 Gershovich, Moshe, “A Moroccan Saint-Cyr,” Middle Eastern Studies 21 (04 1992): 247Google Scholar. The legionnaires gave weapons to Armenian civilians who were bent on revenge against the Turks, see “Rapport hebdomadaire 27 avril–3 mai, 1920,” file 1, carton 4H-58, A.V.

24 Captain Janin in n. 16. He estimated Syria's and Lebanon's populations to include 650,000 Muslims (54%), including the Shiʿi Ismaʿilis among others, a figure that grouped together all manner of sects and ethnic backgrounds, including 450,000 Christians (37%) and about 100,000 assorted others (12%). A distinction must be maintained between Muslims and Sunni Arabs against whom the French supposedly discriminated.

25 Hamelin, to Defense, “télégramme,” document 67/G of 13 11 1918Google Scholar, file 5, carton 4H-2, A.V. With an empire encompassing millions of Muslims, France could not disregard Muslim (read Sunni Arab) recruitment, especially in Damascus.

26 Gouraud argued that these men had a martial reputation. Gouraud to Defense, Rapport sur la situation,” document 189/IG of 1 03 1920Google Scholar. Catroux took the argument one step further when he argued that the threat to French security did not come from the main Sunni cities, but rather from the highlands around them, areas that the Turks always found difficult to subdue. See Catroux, to the high commissioner, document 719/SP of 25 05 1921Google Scholar, file 4, carton 4H-40, A.V.

27 Catroux, Colonel, liaison officer to government of the state of Damascus, to high commissioner, “Rapport,” document 719/SP of 25 05 1921Google Scholar, file 5, carton 4H-132, A.V. The factions within these religious communities were already in existence before the arrival of the French, and they recruited from every one.

28 Hamelin, to Defense, “Origines des troupes auxiliaires du Levant,” document 438/G of 29 03 1919Google Scholar, file 1, carton 4H-2, A.V. The Orthodox, like the Maronites, joined at the instigation of their church. For the latter, see Hamelin, to Defense, “Té1égramme,” document 1129/G of 14 08 1919Google Scholar, file 5, carton 4H-2, A.V.

29 De Reviers, , officer in French intelligence services in Levant, “Rapport Mensuel,” documents 1191/2 of 2 May 1921, 1312/3 of 3 June 1921, 2716/3 of 3 June 1921, and 104/A of 29 09 1921Google Scholar, file 6C, carton 4H-41, A.V. Arab Sunnis do not accept either Druze or ʿAlawis as Muslims. Western historians refer to them as heterodox Muslims.

30 Bailloud, to Defense, document 55 in n. 16.Google ScholarBayhum, Muḥammad Jamīl, al-ʿAhd al-mukhaḍram fī Sūriyya wa-Lubnān (Beirut: Dār al-ṭalīʿa lil-ṭibāʿa wa-al-nashr, 1968)Google Scholar. Small-scale freehold was the predominant form of landownership among central Lebanon Maronites, where most of that sect's recruits came from. The Maronite church encouraged its followers to join the Legion because it wanted to have a say in a French-dominated Lebanon. For division of land, see Warriner, Doreen, Land Reform and Development in the Middle East: A Study of Egypt, Syria and Iraq (London: Oxford University Press, 1974), 217Google Scholar. She stated that about 40 percent of the agricultural lands in the Homs-Hama and Houran plains were composed of 100-acre plots; in the ʿAlawi region larger plots were the norm. Both Lewis, Norman in Nomads and Settlers in Syria and Lebanon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987)Google Scholar and Collet, Anne in Collet de Tcherkess (Paris: Corrêa, 1949)Google Scholar state that the Cherkess were mostly freehold small-scale farmers. Betts, Robert Brenton, in The Druze (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988)Google Scholar, says the same about the Lebanese Druze despite the fact that certain Druze families owned large tracts.

31 The earliest ʿAlawi recruits to the Syrian Legion were those who had left the ʿAlawi region andgone to work in the Homs-Hama agricultural region; see Weulersse, Jacques, Les pays des Alaouites (Tours, 1940), 336Google Scholar. ʿAlawi and Sunni distrust of outsiders and Christians, as well as famine and labor shortages, was reflected in actions by the landlords that discouraged peasant recruitment.

32 The recruits were offered jobs, regular meals, and were well paid by the standards of the ʿAlawi region, which pleased Catroux; see Catroux, , chef de la Mission française de Damas à Monsieur le Haut Commissaire, Beyrouth,” document 230/SP of 24 12 1920Google Scholar, file 1, carton 4H-249, A.V. A bonus was offered when they brought their mounts with them. Horsemanship was not a common skill among either the Maronites or the ʿAlawis, but it was among the Druze, Cherkess, and the bedouin, and that laid the foundation for their domination of the Troupes’ cavalry.

33 Dupuy, Trevor and Martell, Paul, Flawed Victory: The Arab–Israeli Conflict and the 1982 War in Lebanon (Fairfax Va.: Hero Books, 1986), 10Google Scholar.

34 They poured in by the thousands to enroll. Gouraud to Defense, document 1.820/1G of 18 07 1921Google Scholar, file 3, carton 4H-41, A.V. The French thought that they might have over 13,000 by 1922Google Scholar.

35 al-Barūdī, Fakhrī, Mudhākarāt (Beirut: Dār al-ḥayāt, 1931), 9799Google Scholar. Although he detested everything Turkish, al-Barudi waxed nostalgic about the time when Muslims ruled Muslims.

36 Jarīdat al-ʿĀṣima, 10 03 1919, 5Google Scholar; ibid., 4 September 1919, 2. These two issues deal with both the discrimination in the recruitment of the Cherkess to Faysal's army and the distribution of medals.

37 For composition of the Syrian Legion's infantry in 1921, see Landais, Lieutenant-Colonel, commander of the First Regiment of the Syrian Legion, to the territorial commander of ʿAlawi region, document 28/E of 2 01 1921Google Scholar, file 3, carton 4H-41, A.V. In this regiment there were 779 ʿAlawis (34%), 759 assorted heterodox and orthodox Muslims (32.8%), and others, such as Christians, Jews, and Druze.

38 See Table 1.

39 Rapport sur la situation de la Syrie etdu Liban á la Société des Nations (1925), carton 7N-4175, A.V.

40 Ibid., 1926, carton 7N-4175, A.V.

41 Weulersse, , Les Pays, 333–35Google Scholar.

42 Bulletin, de reseignement, document 61/SP of 28 04 1924Google Scholar, file 3, carton 4H-72, A.V. Insufficient rain meant no transhumance, which meant restless tribes. See McCallum, Elizabeth, The Nationalist Crusade in Syria (New York: Foreign Policy Association, 1928), 146Google Scholar. She says that the drought destroyed about 50 percent of the crops.

43 Bulletin de renseignement,” document 33/SP of 23 02 1924Google Scholar, file 3, carton 4H-72, A.V.

44 Arrêté 3045, “Définissant le statut des militaires des troupes spéciales du Levant,” file 5, carton 4H-55, A.V.; “Troupes spéciales du Levant: Relatives aux pensions militaires,” file 5, carton 4H-55, A.V. Like the Legion these were to be auxiliary troops to the French army in the Mandates and wouldbe trained and equipped for that purpose.

45 Partly in order to counter the accusation that the French increased the number of Lebanese soldiers in the Troupes about 25 percent in 1932, equating Lebanon's portion of the population of both mandates. That was as far as the French went toward creating two separate armies; they retained one officer corps, a military academy, a budget, and one administration until independence; see General Morrison, , chief financial officer of the French army in the Levant, “Rapport général: Le rô1e, l'organisation et le coût d'entretien des Troupes Spéciales du Levant,” document 2, 1933Google Scholar, file: Troupes Spéciales du Levant, carton 8N-229, A.V. The French did not see the need for the creation of two national armies. General Gamelin, chief of staff of the French army in the Levant in the 1920s, stated that it was “the duty of France to develop slowly the military forces of the Mandates so that they could safeguard their security. We need to eliminate the divisions which weaken our efforts. We must allow the evolution of political concepts that would ease the factionalism, and these must mature before military reforms can take place. As such it is imperative to allow for the development of an element of patriotism and a sense of nationalism.” See Gamelin, to Defense, document 3639/IG, file administration de Corps de troupes du Levant, 1926Google Scholar, carton 8N-229, A.V.

46 For composition of Troupes Spéciales in 1944, see Table 3Google Scholar.

47 al-Shaʿb, Munāqashāt Majlis (Syrian parliamentary debates), third legislative sessions, 1945, 5Google Scholar.

48 Bou-Nacklie, N. E., “The Avenantaires: Syrian Mercenaries in French Africa,” Middle Eastern Studies 27 (October 1991): 654–67CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Avenantaires were those of the Troupes who signed a contract to fight overseas.

49 Only 900 (6.4%) of them had any combat experience.

50 “Formations d'infanterie des Troupes Spéciales, 1932–1933,” unsigned and unnumbered document, file A. 12, carton 8N-229, A.V.

51 Forces mobiles de Levant #2, Rapport particulier. A/S statut des formations autochtones incorporées dans le groupement des forces mobiles du Levant,” document dated 25 08 1939Google Scholar, file: Troupes Spéciales du Levant, 4, carton 8N-229, A.V.

52 Unsigned and unnumbered document, État récapitulatif des existants en armements et en materiel automobiles dans les unités des Troupes spéciales,” document dated 28 06 1944Google Scholar, file 2, carton 4H-344, A.V.

53 General Goybet, to intelligence services, document 693/2 of 1 02 1921Google Scholar, carton 6C, A.V.; al-Ayyām, 4257 (20 07 1949), 1Google Scholar. Soule-Subsielle's note Classement des éléves,” document 260/EM/TS of 5 04 1944Google Scholar, carton 4H-461, A.V. This academy was to graduate officers for the Troupes.

54 The Syrian military academy, as well as other such institutions in the Middle East, was popular with members of the middle class, partly because the training received there led to a “secure” job and partly because the colonialists and the traditional elites failed to expand the civilian economy and “turned ambitious young men to the army“; see Halpern, Manfred, The Politics of Social Change in the Middle East and North Africa (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1963), 257Google Scholar. The problem was also seemingly faced by members of the lower classes. Hamade, Saʿid, in his Economic Organization of Syria (Beirut: American Press, 1936), 98Google Scholar, states that in the mid-1930s the Troupes who hadcome from Syria proper formed a high 14.2 percent of the male labor force of 92,000.

55 Janowitz, Morris, “Some Observations on the Comparative Analysis of Middle Eastern Military Institutions,” in War, Technology and Society in the Middle East, ed. Parry, Vernon and Yapp, Malcolm (London: Oxford University Press, 1975), 410–21Google Scholar. Janowitz argues that “with exceptions, the military operated, or was created, as a civil service-type establishment of the central government, without the social and personal connections to a landed upper strata.”

56 Dam, Nicholas Van, The Struggle for Power in Syria. Sectarianism, Regionalism and Tribalism in Politics, 1961–1980 (London: Croom Helm, 1979), 40Google Scholar. See also al-Hasan, Syed ʿAziz, “Economic Policy and Class Structure in Syria 1858–1980,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 16 (Summer 1984): 302Google Scholar. Requirements, especially education requirements, for entering the academy restricted thepool of applicants.

57 For example, the Cherkess officer was a deputy to the Kurd commander of the Première Brigade.

58 Rapport à la Société des Nations (1927): 186Google Scholar.

59 Ibid., 188.

Cited by

Save article to Kindle

To save this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Les Troupes Spéciales: Religious and Ethnic Recruitment, 1916–46
Available formats

Save article to Dropbox

To save this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

Les Troupes Spéciales: Religious and Ethnic Recruitment, 1916–46
Available formats

Save article to Google Drive

To save this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

Les Troupes Spéciales: Religious and Ethnic Recruitment, 1916–46
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *