Foreign intervention in the Syrian nightmare has kicked up a couple of notches. Yesterday the European Union lifted its embargo on supplying arms to the Syrian opposition, although it also expressed strong support for the proposed peace conference. Britain and France, the main supporters of ending the embargo, have promised to refrain from any actual supplies until the conference has had a chance to work.

In response, Russia indicated that it would supply the Assad regime with advanced anti-aircraft missiles, which it described as a “stabilising factor”. Doubt was cast on that description by a veiled threat from Israel that it would intervene to prevent Syria deploying such weapons within range of its airspace.

This is starting to look a lot like a proxy war between Russia and the West. No great historical imagination is needed to conjure visions of Afghanistan in the 1980s (Martin Chulov, for one, raises it in The Guardian). That country has never recovered from the devastation wrought then, and there’s no reason to think that escalation in Syria would be any less destructive.

But if Russia and the West can make war, they can also make peace. If the Syrian combatants on both sides become dependent on outside help, that gives those outsiders the power to bring them to the negotiating table if they want to.

So far, Russia’s actions are consistent with the view that it recognises its interest in a Syrian peace settlement and is willing to impose one on Assad if need be, but that it wishes to maximise its leverage beforehand in order to get the best deal possible.

While there are obvious similarities with the proxy war in Afghanistan, there are major differences as well. Russia is not the Soviet Union; it has no ideological solidarity with Assad and it no longer has a central Asian empire of its own to defend. Although Syria in a sense is in Russia’s backyard, it is not on its border; the fears of Muslim insurgency spreading into its own territory, while not completely absent (think Chechnya), are much less than they were in the 1980s.

The West’s interests are also different, firstly because the element of global competition with the Soviets is no longer there, and secondly because it has now seen first hand the dangers of fostering Islamic fundamentalism. There was a good strategic argument for keeping Afghanistan going as a constant low-level conflict, gradually bleeding the Soviets dry. There is no such argument in Syria.

That’s why it’s a matter of concern that a leading role is being taken by cold warriors such as US Senator John McCain, whose outlook seems to have progressed little in 30 years. (It’s quite likely that they have counterparts on the Russian side as well, itching for revenge for Afghanistan.) Deprived of the chance for war with Russia over Georgia in 2008, McCain looks at least as interested in the chance for a rematch as he does in the welfare of the Syrians.

But as I have said before, Western and Russian interests in Syria are not fundamentally incompatible. Neither wants continuing instability, and neither wants a fundamentalist regime in its place. The relatively modest strategic concerns that they have there should, with a bit of effort, all be able to be accommodated.

The prospect of British, French and American supplies to his opponents may just possibly put Assad and his colleagues in a more compliant mood.

Increased Russian involvement may do the same for the opposition. But of course it could easily work the other way around, with foreign assistance encouraging intransigence on both sides — in which case the bloody downward spiral will continue.

Foreign intervention in civil wars is a dangerous game; nonetheless, in some cases it’s the least bad option available. Unfortunately there’s no way of telling in advance whether this is one of them.