UNITED NATIONS — Russia and China again vetoed a Western-backed U.N. resolution Thursday aimed at pressuring President Bashar Assad's government to end the escalating civil war in Syria, sparking dire warnings of even greater bloodshed and spillover to the wider region.
The 11-2 vote, with two abstentions from South Africa and Pakistan, was the third double veto of a resolution addressing the Syria crisis, now in its 17th month, by Damascus' most important allies.
The key stumbling block was the West's insistence that a new resolution be drafted under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which could eventually allow the use of force to end the conflict, and threaten non-military sanctions against the Syrian regime if it didn't withdraw troops and heavy weapons from populated areas within 10 days.
Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said the resolution should never have been put to a vote because the sponsors knew it had no chance of adoption.
"We simply cannot accept a document under Chapter 7, one which would open the path for the pressure of sanctions and further to external military involvement in Syrian domestic affairs," he said.
The defeat leaves in limbo the future of the 300-strong U.N. observer mission in Syria, which was forced to suspend operations because of the intensified fighting. Its mandate, to monitor a cease-fire and implementation of international envoy Kofi Annan's six-point peace plan, expires Friday.
Britain's U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, who sponsored the Western-backed draft, said he had circulated a new draft resolution that would extend the mission of the unarmed observers for a final 30 days and hoped for a vote later Thursday. Pakistan introduced a rival draft that would extend the mission for 45 days, leaving open the possibility of an additional extension.
Russia's Churkin said there were contradictions in the British text and he needed to consult Moscow, but he was confident a technical extension would be approved on Friday.
Lyall Grant said he was "appalled" at the third double veto of a resolution aimed at bringing an end to the violence in Syria and creating conditions for political talks. He called Russia's argument that the resolution would allow for military intervention "irrational," saying Article 41 deals only with non-military sanctions "and could not, therefore, be construed as a precursor to military intervention."
"The consequence of their decision is obvious," Lyall Grant said. "Further bloodshed, and the likelihood of descent into all-out civil war."
U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice told reporters history will judge the Russians and Chinese "harshly," saying their vetoes at a time when the conflict is deteriorating rapidly "threatens to engulf the region in a wider war."
France's U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud said Russia and China must answer for the rise in casualties in Syria — 3,000 at their first veto last October, 7,000 at their second in February, and 17,000 at present. Activists say more than 17,000 people have been killed since the uprising began in March 2011, most of them civilians.
The latest veto was a blow to Annan, the joint U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria, who had called for "consequences" for non-compliance with his peace plan, which has been flouted by the Assad government.
The vote on the resolution was originally scheduled for Wednesday, but Annan requested a delay and appealed to the council to unite behind a new resolution — but neither side would budge.
The delay in Wednesday's vote was announced shortly after the deadly bombing of a high-level security meeting in Damascus that has made Assad's hold on power look increasingly tenuous. His whereabouts have been a mystery since the attack, though Syrian state TV said Assad attended the swearing-in of his new defense minister Thursday.
Syrian Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari blamed elements from al-Qaida and Arab and non-Arab jihadist and terrorist groups for the attacks.
He reiterated the Syrian government's support for Annan's mission and a Syrian-led national dialogue.
"However, it also requires a sincere international commitment and political will from all — especially those parties that have influence on the armed groups and the armed opposition," Ja'afari said. "Some countries are still bent on undermining any serious effort that seeks to solve the problem in Syria peacefully."
Churkin told the council he would not put Moscow's rival draft resolution to a vote to avoid continuing confrontation in the U.N.'s most powerful body. Moscow's proposal called for the "immediate implementation" of Annan's plan and guidelines for a political transition approved at a meeting in Geneva last month and would have extended the observer mission for 90 days but made no mention of sanctions.
Rice, the U.S. ambassador, said Churkin didn't call for a vote on his draft because he didn't have the minimum nine "yes" votes needed.
She said the U.S. might be prepared to consider a final brief extension of the observer mission "if it would allow for the monitors and the civilian staff to withdraw safely."
Rice stressed that the United States is not pinning its policy on the unarmed observer but will instead intensify its work "with a diverse range of partners outside the Security Council to bring pressure to bear on the Assad regime and to deliver assistance to those in need."
Associated Press Writer Peter James Spielmann contributed to this report from the United Nations.