By the standards of past Assad family repression, the last fortnight’s bloodshed in Syria has been relatively mild. But things are clearly not getting any better, and many are starting to wonder whether some sort of rerun of the Libyan intervention will be called for.

Latest reports say that tanks have shelled opposition forces in Homs, Syria’s third-largest city; violence continues in Deraa and clashes have also been reported in Aleppo. Hundreds of people have died in the unrest so far; well short of the 20,000 or so that the current president’s father, Hafez al-Assad, had killed in the city of Hama in 1982, but more than enough to fatally damage Bashar al-Assad’s reputation as a reformer.

Western countries have stepped up their rhetoric against the Assad regime, and Ban Ki-moon has called on Assad to “heed calls for reform and freedom”. Nowhere, however, is the West’s relationship with Middle Eastern autocrats so paradoxical as in Syria.

Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak was treated openly as a friend by the US; the policy of preferring stability to democracy was generally quite explicit, despite a short period of doubt under George Bush jnr. Syria, however, has featured in American rhetoric as an enemy: it has been a particular target for the neocons, who blamed it among other things for driving their favourite, General Aoun, into exile at the end of the Lebanese civil war.

Yet in practice, the policy turns out to have been much the same. The Americans criticised both Assads in public, but gave no assistance to their opponents and privately cultivated them as a bulwark of stability in the region.

The love/hate relationship was shared by Israel as well. Never warm even about Egypt, successive Israeli governments have positively demonised Syria. But at the same time they valued the predictability of the Assads’ rule, and Israel has shown only apprehension at the threat to that rule over recent weeks.

And it can’t be denied that the policy of pursuing “stability” paid some dividends. Syria sponsored the agreement that ended a decade of civil war in Lebanon, it assisted Western forces in the Gulf War of 1991, and it acted as a restraint on the activities of Hezbollah and Hamas. Even the younger Assad’s credentials as a reformer, now shown to be hollow, were not wholly imaginary.

But the longer-term price of that policy is now being paid. The intervention in Libya has put Western policy makers on the spot; they simply cannot credibly claim that massacres by Arab autocrats are none of their business. But they don’t actually want Assad gone, and even if they did there is no obvious way they can hasten that process: unlike Libya, there is no formed opposition with a degree of territorial control that could be given logistical support.

In the meantime, Syrians keep dying.

The best any of us can probably hope for is that the protests rapidly build to a point where the Syrian establishment will be divided and generals will refuse to fire on civilians. But the analogy with Egypt could break down on the fact that Syria’s military owes the West no favors, and has certainly shown no instinct for restraint in the past.

On the other hand, similarly pessimistic things could have been said about Romania in 1989, and that didn’t save Nicolae Ceaucescu.

Much has changed since then, including the much wider assertion of democracy as a norm: when challenged, even the UN now has to come down on the side of freedom. That’s a big achievement. But whether it will be enough to stop the carnage in Syria is at best an open question.