Rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s troops won a fresh boost on Monday when the EU eased its oil embargo on the country to let them use the resources they control.
However, the EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg stopped short of lifting its arms embargo.
Their decision came ahead of a meeting yesterday between Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry in Brussels.
On Monday, Russia, one of al-Assad’s few remaining backers, had criticized the EU measure as “counterproductive.”
“This deepens the impasse and does not contribute to a political solution to problems which have built up over a long time,” Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Minister Mikhail Bogdanov told the Ria Novosti news agency.
Such unilateral action violated international law, he added.
The new measures allow EU companies to import Syrian crude and export oil production technology and investment cash to rebel- held areas.
“We want regions controlled by the opposition to develop, we want to help economic reconstruction,” German Minister of Foreign Affairs Guido Westerwelle said.
The decision to maintain a ban on military aid echoed the stance taken by Washington this weekend at a “Friends of Syria” in Istanbul, where Kerry refused to arm the opposition, but doubled US non-military assistance to US$250 million.
The EU recently eased its arms embargo to allow the supply of non-lethal equipment, as well as technical assistance — which includes training — to the rebels.
Britain and France say the bloc should go further and lift the ban on arming the rebels, but that would require unanimous support.
On the weekend, Syrian opposition leader Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib’s stepped down in protest at world “inaction” over the fighting in Syria, which has left more than 70,000 people dead.
The White House on Monday said it was appalled by “horrific” reports of a massacre in Syria after a watchdog group said 101 people, many of them civilians, had been killed in Jdaidet al-Fadl, near Damascus.
Violence across Syria on Monday killed at least 95 people, including 29 civilians, 33 rebel fighters and 33 regime soldiers, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Al-Assad’s forces have made gains in recent days in the Damascus region and in the central province of Homs.
The regime’s capture of several villages in Homs has raised fears among rebels that the town of Qusayr — an opposition stronghold — could also fall.
The UK-based Observatory said elite fighters from the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah, a staunch ally of the Syrian regime, were leading the fight against rebels there.
George Sabra, the interim chief of the opposition National Coalition, said on Monday that Hezbollah’s role in the fighting around Homs, near the border with Lebanon, amounted to a “declaration of war.”
Lebanon’s official news agency quoted senior Hezbollah leader Sheikh Nabil Qauk as saying: “What Hezbollah is doing with regard to this issue is a national and moral duty in the defense of the Lebanese in border villages.”
In Tel Aviv, Israeli Minister of Defense Moshe Yaalon said Israel had stopped advanced weapons from falling into militant hands, having made it clear to Damascus that it could not let such arms go to Hezbollah “or other rogue elements.”
This was seen as implicit confirmation of Israeli involvement in a Jan. 30 strike on an arms convoy inside Syria, which hit what a US official has said were surface-to-air missiles near Damascus.
Yaalon said Israel had also set out two other “red-line” issues to Damascus: security along the Israeli-Syrian ceasefire line; and any transfer of chemical weapons into the hands of militants.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Monday appealed for an end to outside arms supplies to rival sides during talks with Arab League Secretary-General Nabil al-Arabi and Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem Al Thani.
Qatar has been accused by Damascus of arming Syrian rebels.
Yet al-Arabi told reporters that halting arms supplies would only be possible if there was at least the beginning of a political settlement.