EU foreign ministers have said they will not renew an arms embargo on the Syrian opposition, due to expire on Saturday.
However, there was no immediate decision to send arms to Syrian rebels and all other sanctions remained in force.
Even so, Russia said it would “directly harm” the prospects of an international peace conference on Syria.
The EU declaration on Syria came after 12 hours of talks in Brussels. Foreign ministers were unable to reach the unanimous decision required to extend the current arms embargo, and so agreed to renew the other sanctions – including an assets freeze on President Bashar al-Assad and his aides, and restrictions on trade in oil and financial transactions – without it.
The EU decision will not make much difference on the ground in the immediate future.
Member states can now decide their own policy on sending arms to Syria, but agreed not to “proceed at this stage with the delivery” of equipment.
The EU’s Foreign Affairs Council is to review this position before August 1, in light of fresh developments to end the conflict including the ongoing US-Russia peace initiative.
Britain and France had been pressing for the ability to send weapons to what they call moderate opponents of President Assad, saying it would push Damascus towards a political solution to the two-year conflict.
There has been increasing pressure on the international community to act since allegations emerged of chemical weapons being used in the conflict. Syria has denied using chemical weapons.
UK Foreign Secretary William Hague welcomed the outcome of the Brussels talks, saying it was “important for Europe to send a clear signal to the Assad regime that it has to negotiate seriously, and that all options remain on the table if it refuses to do so”.
But other countries had opposed opening the way for weapons to be sent, saying it would only worsen the violence that has already cost at least 80,000 lives.
Austria had been a key opponent of arms being sent.
“The EU should hold the line. We are a peace movement and not a war movement,” Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger said.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov called the EU move “a manifestation of double standards”. Russia and the US are leading efforts to organize a peace conference on Syria next month.
The Syrian opposition has not said whether to attend the conference, and was locked in talks in Istanbul, Turkey, as an unofficial deadline to decide on its attendance passed.
A spokesman for the opposition Syrian National Coalition, Louay Safi, was quoted by news agency AFP as saying that the EU move was “a positive step”, but that the coalition was “afraid it could be too little, too late”.
George Jabboure Netto, a spokesman for the Syrian National Council (SNC), another opposition group, said the dropping of the arms embargo was a “step in the right direction”.
He said the SNC was willing to negotiate an end to the conflict, but only on the condition that there was no place for President Bashar al-Assad in the new Syria.
“We think coupling the arming of [the] Free Syrian Army with diplomatic efforts is a must for any hopes for the diplomatic efforts to succeed.”
The EU embargo, first imposed in May 2011, applies to the rebels as much as the Syrian government.
But in February this year, foreign ministers agreed to enable any EU member state to provide non-lethal military equipment “for the protection of civilians” or for the opposition forces, “which the Union accepts as legitimate representatives of the Syrian people”.