Syria's opposition rebels to appoint new leader amid fears of radical Islamist involvement

The Syrian National Council will meet today to reassure anti-government backers they can be trusted with weapons

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The Independent Online

Syria’s disparate opposition coalition will meet today to find a new leader in order to reassure western and Arab backers that the rebellion can be trusted with the advanced weaponry that could stem the military advances of the government.

The opposition, which at one point looked just weeks away from toppling President Bashar al-Assad, has been beaten back in recent months, prompting fears from allies that the rebellion could be stamped out.

Adding to the effectiveness of the President’s renewed offensive, the opposition coalition has been unable to unite since the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) lost its leader during a disagreement over potential talks with Assad’s government.

The fracturing, which has allowed radical Islamist to colour the opposition’s agenda,  has made Western countries reluctant to send weapons despite earlier promises to aid the President’s enemies.

The exiled leaders of the opposition have been unable to exert authority on the ground, where rebels are under pressure in the strategic city of Homs and trying to hold on to shrinking patches of territory across the country.

Meeting today in Istanbul, the SNC will aim to install a new, unified leadership that might discourage apathy among international supporters and encourage greater integration with forces inside the war-torn nation.

"The best solution is to create a civilian-military council and move into Syria, with the coalition remaining as an assembly," said Kamal al-Labwani, a senior member of a liberal bloc of the coalition.

More than two years into a conflict that has killed more than 90,000 people, the dividing lines have become increasingly muddied.

The West, which has transition from reluctance to support the violence to an acceptance that advanced weaponry might hasten then end of the war, has been plagues by fears  that the rebellion has become dominated by militant Sunni Islamists, including groups allied to al Qaeda.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has assumed a key role in supporting the opposition and has begun limited delivery of arms to the rebels, including anti-tank missiles. But ahead of today’s summit, a western diplomat said: "The Americans will have the final say on Saudi support. On the surface, U.S. military pledges are minimal, but indirectly, Washington's role is big.”

Several names have surfaced as strong candidates for the presidency of the opposition in recent weeks, including Ahmad Jarba, a tribal figure well connected with Saudi Arabia, and Mustafa Sabbagh, the Qatari-backed secretary general of the coalition.