The European Union offered fresh aid Monday to Syria's opposition, easing an EU oil embargo in favour of the rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad, but stopping short of supplying offensive weapons.
In a new signal of support, 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."
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," said Russia's vice-foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov in comments to 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."
Bogdanov added that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US 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".
Yet worries persist across the 27-nation bloc about the ability of the divided opposition to prevent assistance of any kind from falling into the wrong hands.
Hardline Islamist rebels -- including the al-Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra group -- notably are in at least partial control of Syria's largest oil reserves in Deir Ezzor in the east and Hassaka in the northeast.
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's this weekend 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 organised, more inclusive," he said.
Reiterating a position held by the Scandinavian nations, Danish Foreign Minister Villy Sondval said: "We are not in favour of supplying arms."
They might end up in the wrong hands or only further inflame the conflict, he said.
Talks about amending the EU arms embargo are crucial as the bloc's package of wide-reaching sanctions against Damascus is due to expire in a matter of weeks, on May 31.
Britain and France have pushed hard to convince partners to allow weapons shipments to the rebels but a unanimous agreement is needed.
Westerwelle said Monday that Berlin would have no choice but to accept the lifting of an EU arms embargo on Syria if other European countries push for it. Germany previously had opposed providing military support to Syria's rebels.
The bloc recently eased the arms embargo to allow the supply of "non-lethal" equipment as well as "technical assistance" -- which includes training -- to the rebels.
On the ground in Syria, Assad's forces have made gains in recent days in the Damascus region and in the region of Homs.
Elite fighters from the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah, a staunch ally of the Syrian regime, are leading the fight against rebels in the region of Qusayr in the central province of Homs, a watchdog said on Monday.
"It's Hezbollah that is leading the battle in Qusayr, with its elite forces," Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told AFP.
Over the weekend, Syrian regime forces retook control of a string of strategic villages in the region, which is along the border with Lebanon.
That raised fears among rebels that the town of Qusayr itself, a stronghold of the uprising, could fall into government hands.