LUXEMBOURG – The European Union is set Monday to ease its oil embargo against Syria in favour of rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad's regime in its latest signal of support to the opposition.
EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg are set to formally adopt 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, EU diplomats said.
This first easing in two years of harsh sanctions against the Assad regime aims to help tilt the balance in the conflict. It comes on the heels of a US pledge this weekend to double its financial assistance to Syria's opposition and expand non-offensive military supplies to the rebels.
A draft of the text to be agreed by the ministers says the EU "considers it necessary to introduce derogations" to its existing sanctions against Syria "with a view to helping the Syrian civilian population."
This aimed "in particular to meeting humanitarian concerns, restoring normal life, upholding basic services, reconstruction, and restoring normal economic activity."
Diplomats admitted the decision, possibly followed by the easing of other restrictive measures such as in the key financial sector, might be difficult and take time to implement. "But it will give a strong signal to Assad," said a diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity.
Under the deal, firms seeking to import Syrian crude or invest in the energy sector would ask for authorisation from their government, which in turn would confer with Syria's opposition National Coalition to secure agreement.
The 27-nation bloc slapped a ban on investments in Syrian oil in September 2011, followed by a ban on imports of oil in December, depriving the regime of a major source of cash.
Exports of crude provided up to a third of its hard currency earnings, with the EU buying 95 per cent of it.
While Washington again refused to arm the opposition at a "Friends of Syria" meeting in Istanbul, the divisive issue is expected to be raised once again at the EU talks.
The EU's current package of wide-reaching sanctions against Damascus, including an arms embargo, is due to expire in a matter of weeks, on May 31.
Britain and France have pushed hard to convince their 25 partners to lift the bloc's arms embargo to allow weapons shipments to the rebels.
But others, particularly the Scandinavian nations, remain staunchly opposed, fearing both that more arms will further inflame the conflict and that weapons ultimately could fall into the hands of radical Islamist groups.
Failing a unanimous agreement by the EU's 27 nations to extend the sanctions package, or an amended version of it, the sanctions will expire.
Led by Britain and France, 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.
Britain immediately pledged armoured vehicles and protective clothing. Diplomatic sources have said the embargo possibly could be amended again to allow the supply this time of "lethal" but "defensive" equipment.
In a key statement this weekend, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said Berlin will have no choice but to accept the lifting of an EU arms embargo on Syria if other European countries push for it.
Germany up to now has opposed providing military support to Syria's rebels. Speaking to journalists in Istanbul after the "Friends of Syria" talks, Westerwelle said: "If there are one or two countries in the European Union who think that there is no risk that arms will fall into the wrong hands," then Germany "will have to respect that." AFP