At the beginning of this century, the notion that Western democracies have a responsibility to protect civilians from the ravages of mad dictators and civil war was in ascendancy. Today it lies in shreds in the bloody, rubble strewn streets of Damascus, Aleppo and many other towns and cities.

To be sure, aid workers and humanitarians continue to do the Lord’s work in many troubled regions, providing much needed medical aid and humanitarian assistance. But the notion that the “international community” has a moral obligation” to use military force to stop the wholesale killing of civilians is now little more than a polite fiction in the halls of the UN and the academy.

The doctrine of humanitarian intervention was given its fullest expression in the 2002 report of the International Commission in Intervention and State Sovereignty, which argued that the UN should use military force to prevent massive human rights atrocities in civil conflicts and that state sovereignty is conditional.

The “responsibility to protect” doctrine or RTP, as it came to be known, was the brainchild of then-Liberal foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy. Although Axworthy’s name never appeared on the actual report – that honour went to the Commission’s two co-chairs, Algerian diplomat Mohammed Sahnoun and former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans, he and officials in the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs were its chief architects and proponents.

The main principles of the report were subsequently embraced by the General Assembly of the United Nations and successive resolutions of the Security Council as well as a number of regional organizations such as the African Union.

In Kosovo, and subsequently in Libya in NATO’s efforts to help unseat Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, RTP appeared as if the idea had some currency.

In its various policy statements soon after coming to power, the Obama administration also appropriated RTP and human security as the centrepiece of its new foreign policy.

However, Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s remarkable comeback when many, including ourselves, were writing his obituary, is a stark reminder that national self-interest and sovereignty trump humanitarian principles and RTP when really put to the test.

Despite a great deal of hand wringing by politicians, diplomats, and pundits, Western nations prefer to sit on the sidelines and watch Syria’s fires burn as hundreds of thousands are killed or displaced.

The Obama administration has been in full hyperventilation mode throughout this crisis. Former secretary of state Hilary Clinton and ex-UN ambassador Susan Rice were the most voluble. The President literally had to be dragged into the decision to arm Syrian rebels by the more hawkish members of his administration. And what is on offer now is taking the form of “too little, too late.”

Assad comes out the winner here because he has strong backers. Russia and Iran have direct interests in Syria that they are determined to defend whereas the US has essentially humanitarian, RTP sentiments about the strife and an abiding interest in the Israeli/Palestinian dispute above almost all else in the Middle East. It comes across as weakness that thuggish regimes of various stripes will easily exploit.

Neither Russia nor Iran, with little concern about the attitudes of their own people, lack the stomach for military intervention, whereas the weary West clearly does not want to get its hands dirty no matter how noble (or desperate) the cause. The fractious nature of the Syrian opposition does not help.

The one real, unifying power in Syria is the military. That is what is propping up Assad. That is also a fact that the Russians seem to have grasped from the start. So much for “intelligence,” yet again.

The “hard” asset Russia is defending is, of course, its naval base. Contrast the effect of that with the billions spent by the US on the Egyptian military, for what exactly?

The second round of Geneva Peace Talks is also shaping up to be a farce. As one former UN diplomat confided recently, it is hard to have serious negotiations when one side (Russia) cares deeply about the outcome while the other side (the United States) is indifferent and disengaged. The White House’s dealings with the Kremlin have been limp and listless from the beginning.

As with Caesar’s demise, many hands are responsible for RTP’s death. But if there is an “et tu Brute” moment in this drama, it is with Washington. It has failed to lead in stopping the killing, if not with boots on the ground then at least with effective diplomacy.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.