Indeed, the interests of Russia and the West could, in some respects, converge. For one thing, Western governments are nervous about the nature of the Syrian opposition (see article). Secular-minded rebels still predominate, but jihadists with links to al-Qaeda are coming in. Neither Russia nor the West wants a new government in Syria to export jihadist zealotry to its neighbours such as Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, let alone to Palestinians under Israeli occupation or in Gaza. Nor do they want any of Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons to fall into al-Qaeda’s hands.

The idea that the embattled regime may withdraw to an Alawite sanctuary in Syria’s north-western mountains is not regarded as likely. Such an enclave would be economically unviable. But Syria’s Alawite generals may in the end conclude that their chances of survival, literally or under a new regime, would be higher if they were to dispense with the Assads.

Hence the growing talk in Western intelligence circles of “decapitating” the regime, rather than overthrowing it entirely. This would require the opposition to strike deals with Sunni generals. France has recently touted Manaf Tlass, a defecting Sunni general from a powerful family hitherto close to the Assads, as a transitional figure—an idea soon dismissed, however, by virtually all of the opposition.