30/05/2013 09:12 BST | Updated 29/07/2013 06:12 BST

A Humanitarian 'Proxy War' in Syria?

For over two years now, European policymakers have struggled to provide a coherent response to the convulsion of violence that has befallen Syria. As with Libya in 2011, much of the debate has centred on the question of what role European states should play in protecting vulnerable civilians beyond our borders.

However, the EU's landmark decision not to renew its arms embargo against Syria marks a distinctive shift in European approaches to civilian protection. Although proponents of a more 'robust' response to the Assad Regime's crimes will no doubt be pleased, it is a further reflection of the side taking that has complicated the international response to the war so far. Ending the arms embargo threatens to shift the focus from protecting civilians and ending the conflict, to backing a side in a proxy war. With more than a passing resemblance to 'Low Intensity Conflict' during the Cold War, once again the West and Russia again appear poised to pour further fuel on an already bitter conflict.

Civil wars in Libya and Syria have both taken place in the context of increasing international consensus on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). From its origins in an eponymous 2001 report, to its affirmation at the 2005 United Nations World Summit, the concept highlights the fundamental responsibility of a state to protect its population. Should a state be unwilling or unable do this, the R2P suggests that this responsibility should fall to the wider international community.

UN-mandated intervention in Libya to protect civilians did appear to reflect a further affirmation of the R2P as an international norm. However, a restrictive Security Council mandate and the desire to avoid large-scale, long-term deployment of troops, led NATO states towards a more remote form of humanitarian intervention - through air strikes and support for a local proxy. The responsibility to protect civilians very quickly became conflated with regime change and overt international support for the war aims of the Libyan Rebels.

This process of side-taking has taken a more problematic turn in Syria. The backing of rival sides, by Russia and the West, has helped entrench the conflict, making a negotiated settlement and the protection of civilians through UN Security Council action more difficult. The ending of the EU arms embargo was followed swiftly by Russia's announcement that it intends to supply to Syrian government with S-300 anti-aircraft missiles. Although the UK government has not formally committed to supplying the Syrian Rebels with weapons, it seems likely that arms transfers will eventually supplement Britain's current provision of 'non-lethal' military hardware.

The need to protect Syrian civilians is still emphasized by European policymakers, reflected by William Hague's recent references to "bodies heaped in the streets, and children butchered in their homes". However, it is questionable whether a humanitarian proxy war is quite what the architects of the R2P had in mind. Ending the EU arms embargo seems to suggest that the goal of protecting civilians is increasingly viewed as synonymous with helping a local proxy, in this case the Syrian National Coalition, win the civil war.

Increasing access to military hardware can only be intended to escalate the violence within Syria, something likely to endanger, rather than protect its civilians. There's also the question of what will happen to these weapons once the war ends. Small arms and light weapons proliferation already contributes to insecurity and widespread human misery across the Horn of Africa. Similarly, the outflow of ex-Iraqi Army hardware was a key ingredient in the onset of the post-Invasion insurgency during the last decade.

Side taking in Syria bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the 'arms-length' intervention in local conflicts by the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Proxy wars of the 1980s had devastating consequences for civilians in Afghanistan, Angola, Nicaragua and beyond. There is little reason to suspect that the human impact of an intensified Syrian Civil War, fuelled by US, European and Russian weaponry, would necessarily be any different.

Although the international response to Syria has been lacklustre, reducing the responsibility to protect vulnerable civilians to arming a side in a civil war is a disappointing development. Instead of attempting to develop more innovative diplomatic or military responses to large-scale violence against civilians, it indicates a lack of imagination on the part of Europe and the wider international community.

The question of how best to protect the Syrian population has no particularly easy answer. However, if European states wish to reduce human suffering in Syria, increasing access to the tools of violence would seem to represent a distinctive step in the wrong direction.