BRUSSELS The European Union took steps on Monday to provide direct aid potentially including security advice to rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but stopped short of lifting an arms embargo on the country.
The decision, taken at an EU foreign ministers' meeting, was a compromise after weeks of clashes between Britain, which pushed for easing the embargo to help rebels, and EU countries worried allowing more weapons into Syria could fuel violence.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he foresaw more talks in coming months on how the EU can help the opposition in Syria, but now London would use the new measures to offer help.
"We will certainly use the full leeway provided by this amendment to the embargo in order to provide greater assistance for the protection of civilians," Hague told reporters after meeting his EU counterparts in Brussels.
Details of what will be allowed in practice must still be determined, but diplomats said governments could offer advice on bolstering security or holding back Assad's forces, for example.
"(It could take place) in the country or in the region," one EU diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Many EU governments are concerned any easing of the arms embargo would only inflame the Syrian conflict, and it would be difficult to ensure equipment reaches the right people.
"There is no shortage of arms in Syria," Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said before the meeting.
EU rules only allow some protective gear to be sent to countries under arms embargoes, such as Syria.
Several scenarios were under consideration during Monday's discussions, EU officials said, including a full lifting of the arms ban to allow shipments to opposition groups.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton underlined that no "lethal" support would be provided but said Monday's decision marked a significant change in the EU's approach to the rebels.
"This is not about military support, but that we were able to give the support to the people on the ground to help them in every possible way," she told reporters. "There's nothing politically fudgy ... around this at all."
Ministers also decided to renew all sanctions against Syria, which include a ban on purchasing Syrian oil, for three months.
President Barack Obama has decided to limit U.S. support for the rebels to non-lethal aid as well, even though the Pentagon has supported a recommendation to arm them promoted by the State Department and the CIA.
An estimated 70,000 people have been killed since an uprising against Assad began in March 2011 after the overthrow of veteran authoritarian rulers in Tunisia and Egypt.
Despite some support from Sunni regional powers including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the rebels remain largely disorganised, fragmented and ill-equipped. They say weapons occasionally do seep through from Jordan but they rely more on arsenals seized from Assad's troops and arms from Turkey.