The future of the 300-strong United Nations observer mission in Syria is in limbo after Russia and China again vetoed a Western-backed resolution aimed at pressuring President Bashar Assad's government to end the escalating civil war.
Thursday's latest UN Security Council deadlock sparked 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 UN Charter, which could eventually allow the use of force to end the conflict, and threaten non-military sanctions against the Syrian regime if it did not withdraw troops and heavy weapons from populated areas within 10 days.
Russia's UN 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 observer mission, which was forced to suspend operations because of the intensified fighting. Its mandate, to monitor a ceasefire and implementation of international envoy Kofi Annan's six-point peace plan, is about to expire.
Britain's UN ambassador Sir 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 one last time, for a final 30 days. A copy of the draft obtained by the Associated Press showed the mission would continue only if the council confirmed that Assad's government had pulled artillery and heavy weapons back from the cities and sent his troops back to barracks.
Pakistan circulated a rival draft that would extend the mission for 45 days, with the possibility of further renewals.
After closed security council consultations on Thursday night, Mr Churkin emerged visibly upset and said the British draft was imposing political conditions on the mission's continuation. He said Russia would oppose that and would support the Pakistani text. Mr Churkin said he expected the council to vote on both drafts.
Sir Mark 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 dealt only with non-military sanctions "and could not, therefore, be construed as a precursor to military intervention".