LUXEMBOURG – The European Union on Monday lifted its oil embargo on Syria to provide more economic support to the forces fighting to oust President Bashar Assad's regime.
The decision will allow for crude exports from rebel-held territory, the import of oil and gas production technology, and investments in the Syrian oil industry, the EU said in a statement.
Any export or investment initiatives will be taken in close coordination with the leaders of the Syrian opposition, the bloc's 27 foreign ministers decided at a meeting in Luxembourg.
The move marks the first relaxing of EU sanctions on Syria in two years as governments try to help ease shortages of vital supplies in areas held by the opposition in the civil war-struck Arab state.
"We wish for good economic development in the areas controlled by the opposition, therefore we lift the sanctions that hinder the moderate opposition forces' work," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said ahead of the meeting.
The oil exports could open an important revenue stream for Syria's opposition, even though it is still unclear when and how much crude could be exported.
EU officials hinted the move was in part aimed at laying the legal groundwork to get investment and crude flowing rapidly as soon as the security situation on the ground improves.
"The security situation is so difficult that much of this will be difficult to do, but it is important for us to send the signal that we are open to helping in other ways, in all the ways possible," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said.
While Syria was never one of the world's major oil exporters, the sector was a pillar of Syria's economy until the uprising, with the country producing about 380,000 barrels a day and exports — almost exclusively to Europe — bringing in more than $3 billion in 2010. Oil revenues provided around a quarter of the funds for the national budget.
Since the start of the uprising, Syria's oil industry has faltered as the rebels have captured many of the country's oil fields, with wells aflame and looters scooping up crude. That has deprived Assad's government of much-needed cash and fuel for its war machine as it fights the two-year-old uprising.
The government has not released recent production figures, but exports have ground practically to a standstill, and Assad's regime has been forced to import refined fuel supplies to keep up with demand amid shortages and rising prices.
Imports of fuel or crude to Syria have not been targeted by the sanctions.
Some EU members, such as Britain and France, are also pushing to lift the bloc's arms embargo against Syria to allow weapons shipments to the rebels. But other major EU players, such as Germany, remain opposed to that step, fearing it might set off a regional arms race and deepen the conflict.
The arms embargo expires May 30, and the EU foreign ministers aren't expected to make a decision on it before their next meeting in May, EU officials said.
"We need to do more to support the opposition," said Britain's Hague. "In the U.K, we increase humanitarian assistance, we are sending shipments of body armor, bullet-proof vehicles, communications equipment and other means of saving lives," he added.
The conflict in Syria has left more than 70,000 people dead, according to the United Nations.
The violence in Syria has forced more than 1 million Syrians to escape their homeland to seek safety abroad, and more are seeking refuge by the day, putting an immense burden on neighboring countries like Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.
"There is a risk that at the end of the year 2013, we'll have three million refugees", warned Luxembourg's Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn. The EU as a whole is already the single-biggest donor of humanitarian aid but more must be done to alleviate the suffering in Syria and reduce the burden on its neighbors, he added.
At their meeting, the ministers were also set to drop sanctions against Myanmar, also referred to as Burma, to support the country's transition toward democracy.
"The problems of Burma are not over, but the progress that has been made is substantial," said Hague, adding the EU must strengthen its engagement with the authorities to stop the ongoing ethnic violence in Myanmar that particularly targets Muslim minorities there.
The sanctions were suspended last April for one year after the country's military rulers handed over power to a civilian government that launched democratic reforms. The measures had targeted more than 800 companies and nearly 500 people, and also included the suspension of some development aid.
An embargo on arms and equipment that can be used for internal repression, however, will remain in place.
The end of the bulk of the sanctions should encourage firms from the 27-nation EU — the world's largest economy — and development organizations to strengthen their engagement in Myanmar, EU officials said.
Raf Casert in Brussels contributed reporting.
Juergen Baetz can be reached on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/jbaetz