Now we see it. The West, or shall we call it, “the international community”, is paralysed in the face of one of the most barbaric and systematic ethnic cleanings of the 21st Century. We are talking Syria, although it has uncanny similarities with Sri Lanka.

05 Syriawoman r 620 Syrias inconvenient truth

Once upon a time we were talking Sierra Leone – a very successful small-scale intervention in which citizens were saved and democracy restored – but that was in the last century.

Once we talked Kosovo – Western intervention without UN sanction.  Afghanistan followed and Iraq too, dogged by a desperate Anglo-American-led bid to get the United Nations to legitimise it. And finally we hit Libya, so hard we rained enough bombs to help bring about regime change that was not sanctioned at the United Nations. And then, when it came to Syria, we hit the brick wall of a Sino-Russian veto against just one more intervention that had already been cast in “regime change” terms.

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Add to this the tinderbox that is the Middle East and the International Community dare not light even one match. In any case as President Obama reminded us last night,  the US wouldn’t rule out using force against Iran to stop it constructing a nuclear bomb.

Saudi Arabia says it wants to arm the Syrian rebels. Some think they already have. Our own Foreign Office says there is not much of a coherent unified opposition to “support”. For the first time that I can remember, Syria’s hard line ruling Baath Party is being described as Shia. Technically they are, but deeply secular. Yet the very fact that these Shia roots exist, and that Shia Iran is now Syria’s closest ally, scares the daylights out of the Saudis.

So we now have a picture of the “West” being against Iran, and Syria; whilst supporting Israel and the Saudis. You have the Israelis wanting to bomb Iran to stop any further nuclear development, and the US seeking the same goal, if not yet the same means. You have Russia and China supporting the Syrian regime but becoming increasingly sensitive about what that is doing to their prestige.

Meanwhile no one is talking to anyone, beyond the people they always talk to. Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu is in Washington again today talking to Mr Obama.

We are caught in what is inescapably a Sunni Shia war into which the West is stumbling. But that stumbling is a desperate shoe shuffle designed never to have to fire a shot in anger.

Read more: The Horror of Homs

So in the second decade of the 21st century we have devised the mechanisms for transmitting crude evidence of atrocity. Thanks to courage and the mobile phone, the world’s citizenry is better informed about the bloodletting in Syria than during any massacre at any time in history.

This is Sri Lanka all over again, except that this time we don’t have to wait until the massacres are over, we can see them as they happen. We citizens know as much as those in power. That’s new. It is a very inconvenient truth, because what it describes is an international system so abused by its members that it can no longer function in a most desperate hour of need. So what’s to be done?

You can follow Jon Snow on Twitter @jonsnowC4