There's a very good article by Roy Gutman from The Daily Beast, published in February this year, about the moral underpinnings – or lack thereof – of the United Nations and the US and other powerful countries' failure to take effective action against the massacres of the Assad regime.
The killings have gone on for many years now, from about 5,000 deaths in 2011 when the Syrian popular revolt broke out to many more thousands each year – around half a million killed so far. More than 6 million have been displaced within Syria, and an additional 5 million have fled the country.
Gutman refers to the failure of the UN and US and allies to take effective action against the Assad regime as a 'Srebrenica moment'.
He writes that, 23 years (in 1995) ago:
… the world sat mostly mute, watching events unfold in and around the small village of Srebrenica in a remote corner of eastern Bosnia. No government was ready to lift a finger to save the population of some 27,000, at least half of them displaced from other areas.
At a critical moment, the United Nations Protection Force decided not to bomb Bosnian Serb forces marching on the town. That was taken as the all-clear for Gen. Radko Mladic to capture Srebrenica, expel the women and children, and exterminate the male population of some 8,000.
In all, about 100,000 were killed during the Bosnian war but the killings were ultimately halted when a NATO force of 60,000 peace-keeping troops occupied the region. Prior to that, there had been NATO air strikes to enforce and defend 'safe zones'. This is one of the interventions Syria has needed for several years, desperately. A No Fly Zoneimposed by the US and NATO, and anyone else willing to help.
In 1994, a year prior to Srebrenica, more than half a million Rawandans were massacred over a hundred day period. Again, there was no effective intervention on the part of the powerful west. We just watched, deplored what was happening, a French military force established a 'safe humanitarian zone' in part of Rawanda which saved around 15,000 people, but we did nothing to stop the actual genocide.
In 2013, former US president Bill Clinton reflected on the failure of the US government (during his presidency) to intervene in the genocide as one of his main foreign policy failings. He estimated that 300,000 lives could have been saved by US military intervention.
Following such tragic events, it seemed that an internationalist sense of responsibility was developing – an understanding that 'we are all one', that we share a common humanity and that the massacre of people anywhere is an issue for all of us, that separation by oceans or continents is irrelevant. And most importantly, that when all else fails, such as diplomatic pressure and sanctions, military intervention can be the best humanitarian option.
In 1999, the NATO bombing campaign to protect Kosovor Albanians from ethnic cleansing did not have the approval of the United Nations but it averted a much greater bloodbath. The aim of the military campaign was to end the violence and ethnic cleansing policies of the Milosevic national-socialist government, the withdrawal of all military, police and paramilitary forces from Kosovo, the stationing of a UN peacekeeping presence in Kosovo, unconditional and safe return of all refugees and displaced persons, and the establishment of a political framework agreement for Kosovo in conformity with international law and the Charter of the UN.
The NATO led force is still there, with a strength of 4,600.
While the pseudo-left protested against the military action, in defence of 'national sovereignty' and against US imperialism (as though it was in any way an imperialist venture), the UN itself was moving ahead of such antiquated and pernicious thinking and in 2005 adopted in principle the 'Responsibility to Protect' or 'R2P'.
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