China's Ambassador to the U.N. Li Baodong (R), Russian Ambassador to the U.N. Vitaly Churkin (C) and United States Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice chat before a vote on a new Security Council resolution on Syria at U.N. headquarters on July 19, 2012 in New York City. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Russia and China on Thursday vetoed a
Western-backed U.N. Security Council resolution threatening the government of Syria with sanctions, leaving the United States and its allies grappling for a new strategy to end the violence at a time of spreading chaos within the country.

The council deadlock upended months of U.N. diplomacy aimed at stemming the crisis, which has engulfed Syria in what some are calling civil war and has left at least 14,000 people dead. It also placed new strains on relations between the United States and its European allies on one side and Russia and China on the other.

“The Security Council has failed utterly in its most important task on its agenda this year,” Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told the council after the vote. She later condemned the decision by Russia and China to veto the resolution — the third time they had blocked a measure seeking to pressure Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — as “pitiful and deeply regrettable.”

As permanent members of the 15-nation Security Council, Russia and China, both longtime allies of Assad, have veto power. Both had been open about their opposition to the resolution in the days leading up to the vote. Eleven nations voted in favor of the resolution, with Pakistan and South Africa abstaining.

The rejection of the measure raised serious doubts about the long-term viability of the U.N. monitoring mission in Syria, whose mandate expires at the end of Friday. Although U.N. personnel had been severely restricted in their ability to monitor the situation in Syria, they have provided critical information about the violence.

At a news conference in Damascus before the vote, Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, the head of the mission, was notably downbeat. “It pains me to say, but we are not on the track for peace in Syria, and the escalations we have witnessed in Damascus over the past few days is a testimony to that,” he said.

Kofi Annan, the U.N.-Arab League emissary to Syria, whose peace plan is effectively moribund, was “disappointed that at this critical stage the U.N. Security Council could not unite and take the strong and concerted action he had urged and hoped for,” according to his spokesman.

There were indications that the West was unprepared to abruptly withdraw the monitors from Syria. Britain circulated a short resolution that would extend the mandate of the mission for 30 days. Rice said that although the United States would no longer “pin its policy” on unarmed U.N. observers who lacked even “minimal support” from the Security Council, Washington might support an extension to allow for the monitors’ safe and orderly withdrawal.

Russia’s U.N. envoy, Vitaly I. Churkin, defended the veto, saying the resolution was “biased” in threatening only the Syrian government with sanctions without doing anything to constrain an armed opposition movement that has carried out a series of ever more violent attacks against government targets — including a devastating strike Wednesday that reached into the heart of Assad’s national security leadership.

Churkin said the Western approach is designed to “fan the flames” of violence in Syria, with the United States and other powers pursuing their own “geopolitical” ambitions in the region and paving the way for a military push to remove Assad from power. He said Russia “simply cannot accept” a resolution threatening sanctions and foreign military involvement.

Syria’s U.N. envoy, Bashar al-Jaafari, also accused Western powers of using the resolution to lay the ground for a military intervention in Syria.

Rice and other Western diplomats denied categorically that the resolution would set the stage for outside military intervention.

The resolution was based on Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which has been traditionally used to authorize the use of sanctions and military force. But the resolution included no explicit reference to the use of force, and threatened measures only under Article 41 of the enforcement provision, which deals only with sanctions.

Russia and China “argued that a Chapter 7 resolution was somehow designed to seek military action through the back door,” said Britain’s U.N. envoy, Mark Lyall Grant, who led the negotiations on behalf of the West. “These arguments are irrational.”

The veto followed visits by Annan and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to Moscow and Beijing, where they sought to urge Russian and Chinese leaders to take a tougher stance on Syria. For weeks, Annan has been promoting a new diplomatic strategy aimed at prodding the Syrian government and the armed opposition to enter talks on the establishment of a government of national unity. Annan argued that those who failed to comply with the political strategy should face unspecified consequences.

The United States, Britain, France and other allies fashioned a resolution that would reconfigure the U.N. mission in Syria to support Annan’s push for political talks and threatened to impose sanctions against the Syrian government within 10 days if it failed to halt its shelling of residential centers and remove its heavy weapons from urban areas.

The resolution included no similar threat of sanctions against the armed opposition, which has demonstrated an increasingly robust capacity to strike at military targets.

In explaining their decision to abstain, South Africa and Pakistan argued that the sponsors had not made a serious enough effort to offer concession to the Russians and Chinese to maintain council unity.

Babak Dehghanpisheh in Beirut contributed to this report.