BEIRUT — The main Western-backed Syrian opposition group began a three-day meeting in Istanbul on Sunday to elect a new president and discuss the offensive by Islamic militants straddling Iraq and Syria, an official with the group said.
The meeting comes amid reports that 150,000 people have been displaced from their homes in eastern Syria by jihadi fighters who captured wide areas of the eastern province of Deir el-Zour in the past weeks.
The Syrian National Coalition will pick a replacement for its current president, Ahmad al-Jarba, in a vote expected on Tuesday. The top candidate for the job is senior coalition members are Hadi Bahra and Muwaffaq Nairabiyeh, who belong to Jarba's Democratic bloc. Spokeswoman Sarah Karkour said that by Sunday evening, there hadn't been an agreement on a candidate, although members were coalescing around Bahra.
Jarba, who was elected in July of last year, has already served two six-month terms — the maximum period allowed by the coalition.
A statement by the group said that in addition to a vote for a new president, the coalition will also elect three vice presidents, a secretary general and a political committee. The statement said the coalition will be "discussing the military changes in Syria and the region in general, and its impact on the course of revolution."
Women members will also be pushing for a vote to institute a quota to ensure they make up 30 percent of the coalition members, said Mariam Jalabi, director of the group's New York and United Nations offices.
Over the past weeks, Islamic militants launched a wide offensive in eastern Syria and northern Iraq capturing large areas on both sides of the border.
The group, which calls itself the Islamic State, six days ago declared the establishment of an Islamic state, or caliphate, in the territories it seized in Iraq and Syria. The group proclaimed its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi the leader of its territory and demanded that all Muslims pledge allegiance to him.
Also Sunday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Islamic State group has displaced 150,000 Syrians from their homes in the eastern oil-rich province of Deir el-Zour. The group has been on the offensive in Deir el-Zour since late April and has captured a large numbers of towns and villages in the province after intense fighting with rival rebel groups.
On Saturday, the military chief of Syria's main Western-backed rebel group made an urgent plea for more weapons, warning that rebels were now being squeezed by both forces loyal to President Bashar Assad and Islamic militants. Without more aid, Brig. Gen. Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir said Syria risked a "humanitarian disaster."
Even as the warnings came, activists said Syrian military planes shelled towns held by the Islamic State in Deir el-Zour, a rare move that suggested that Syria's government was trying to prevent their advance further.
Syria's military has mostly held off from attacking the Islamic State group, but has not commented on the matter. It appears that the government has been content to watch the extremist fighters and Syrian rebels decimate themselves in infighting.
But on Sunday, government war planes struck the town of Mouhasan six times. The town lies east of the provincial capital of Deir el-Zour. The warplanes also stuck towns of al-Mayadeen, Khasham and al-Kasra, to the west of the provincial capital, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The warplanes also struck twice at the town of Sheheil, recently seized by the Islamic State group fighters. Some of the incidents were also reported by activist collectives — the Deir el-Zour coordination committee and the Local Coordination Committee.
With additional reporting by Diaa Hadid in Beirut.