The Syrian army was founded by the French after World War I when France obtained its mandate over the northern Levant, organized into the new states of Syria and Lebanon. French rule was highly unpopular and faced constant friction from the general populace, punctuated by several outright revolts. In 1919 France created the Troupes Spéciales du Levant with 8,000 men, which later grew into the Syrian and Lebanese armies. These units were used primarily as auxiliaries alongside its own regulars. Senior officer billets were held by French personnel, although Syrians were allowed to hold commissions below major. The Troupes Spéciales was intended almost exclusively for internal-security responsibilities, while France handled external security.
The small Syrian army that developed during this period was dominated by Syria's minority groups: Druze, Alawis, Christians, Circassians, and Kurds. The French favored the Christians as coreligionists and dispensed commissions liberally throughout their small population. They also encouraged other minorities to join the army, while discouraging the majority Sunni Arabs from doing so, as a means of controlling the country. Paris hoped that the Syrian minorities would feel dependent on the French for their position and security and so would defend its control of the country against the Sunnis. For their part, the more cosmopolitan Sunnis viewed the Syrian army as a mandate tool, and so it was not considered prestigious or fashionable; most considered the army a career only for the incompetent. By contrast, the army offered economic and social advancement to the minorities, who clamored for the opportunity to enlist. By the Second World War, non-Sunni Syrians were significantly overrepresented in the armed forces.