This article explains why R2P failed to motivate action to protect vulnerable Syrians in the first two years of the crisis. We focus on the United States and argue that official discourse ‘localised’ the meaning R2P by grafting it on to preconceived ideas of America’s role in supporting democratic revolutions, which is how the situation was understood. American ‘exemplarism’ demanded the US support democracy by calling on Assad to go while not corrupting the ‘homegrown’ revolution through foreign intervention. The call for political and criminal accountability aligned exemplarist democracy promotion to R2P, but it did nothing to protect vulnerable populations from the conflict that ensued. This refraction of the norm complicated the United Nations sponsored peace process, which provided an alternative means of protecting the Syrian population. We address a gap in the literature by examining Western localisation and draw policy lessons, namely the importance of examining national predispositions when implementing R2P.