inauguration of the first Syrian opposition '
inauguration of the first Syrian opposition 'AFP photo

The European Union offered fresh aid to Syria's opposition on Monday, easing an EU oil embargo in favor of the rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad, but stopping short of supplying offensive weapons.

AFP reported that EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg formally adopted measures enabling EU companies on a case-by-case basis to import Syrian crude and export oil production technology and investment cash to areas in the hands of the opposition.

"We want regions controlled by the opposition to develop, we want to help economic reconstruction," said German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle on arriving for the talks.

"People will see there is a real alternative to the Assad regime exists," he added, according to AFP.

In a first reaction Russia said the EU decision was "counter-productive".

"This deepens the impasse and does not contribute to a political solution to problems which have built up over a long time," Russia's vice foreign minister, Mikhail Bogdanov , was quoted as having told the Ria Novosti news agency.

"That is why we think this decision is counter-productive. We consider such unilateral actions to be against the principles of international law," he stressed.

Bogdanov added that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry would discuss the EU decision during a meeting in Brussels on Tuesday.

Moscow is one of Assad's few remaining backers. It frequently provides the regime with military and other assistance, though it says it opposes foreign intervention in the Syrian conflict.

Along with China, Russia has blocked several UN Security Council draft resolutions threatening sanctions against Assad's regime.

The first easing in two years of harsh EU sanctions against Damascus aims to help tilt the balance in the conflict but is a response to complaints by the civilian population that international sanctions are harming ordinary Syrians more than they are the regime, EU sources said.

Though Syria was not a leading exporter of crude, the EU's 2011 sanctions deprived Damascus of much needed cash. Sales of crude provided up to a third of Syria's hard currency earnings, with the EU buying 95 percent of it.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said as he stepped into the meeting with counterparts that there "is now a humanitarian catastrophe in Syria" and that "this should remain top of our agenda".

The opposition has demanded that foreign backers supply the rebels with arms, institute a no-fly zone and carry out airstrikes on positions used by the Assad regime to launch missiles.

However, many in the West have raised concerns about arming the rebels, fearing weapons could end up in the hands of radical Islamist groups such as the Al-Nusra Front, which this month pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda.

Western diplomats have said increased military support will hinge on the opposition showing it can be more inclusive and that it could ensure weapons would be secure. They would also have to reject the use of chemical weapons and guarantee respect for human rights.

Hardline Islamist rebels -- including Al-Nusra -- are in at least partial control of Syria's largest oil reserves in Deir Ezzor in the east and Hassaka in the northeast, noted AFP.

Washington this weekend refused to arm the opposition at a "Friends of Syria" meeting in Istanbul and the same question is expected to again divide EU nations behind closed doors at Monday's talks.

Meanwhile, Syrian opposition chief Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, decided to step down due to world "inaction" over the killing in Syria, which has left more than 70,000 people dead.

Khatib's colleagues said his decision was motivated by the international community's refusal to provide heavy weapons to the rebels.

But Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders implied it was a fresh instance of internal tension. "We must ask the opposition to be more organized, more inclusive," he said, according to AFP.

Reiterating a position held by the Scandinavian nations, Danish Foreign Minister Villy Sondval said: "We are not in favor of supplying arms."

They might end up in the wrong hands or only further inflame the conflict, he said.