New York // Russia and China yesterday vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution calling on the Syrian president Bashar Al Assad to step aside.
The same two nations vetoed a weaker measure condemning violence in Syria in October. Yesterday 13 of the 15 council members voted in favour.
"It is a sad day for the Security Council, a sad day for Syria and a sad day for all friends of democracy," the French ambassador to the UN, Gerard Araud, told the council after the vote.
The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said earlier yesterday that a quick vote would be "a scandal". Faced with unrest at home, Moscow is particularly sensitive to any UN action that asks a leader to step aside in the face of a popular revolt.
Instead, Moscow proposed a raft of new amendments to the resolution. Among them was a rejection of the Arab League's timetable for Mr Al Assad to step aside in favour of a unity government, leading to democratic elections.
Russia also wanted peaceful demonstrators to disassociate from "armed groups". The changes also stripped out details of human-rights violations by the Assad regime, such as torture, arbitrary detention and ill-treatment of children.
Russia wanted the withdrawal of Syrian government forces from cities to be in conjunction with the removal of armed opposition groups.
Susan Rice, the US ambassador, said the Russian amendments were unacceptable. "The United States is disgusted that certain members of the council are obstructing our sole purpose here," which was to resolve the Syrian crisis, Ms Rice told the council. "This is even more irresponsible by one of these members who continues to provide arms to Syria."
Ms Rice described the Russian attempt at last-minute amendments as unforgivable.
Philippe Bolopion, Human Rights Watch's UN director, said: "Vetoes by Moscow and Beijing four months ago were irresponsible. Today, after weeks of Russian diplomatic game-playing and in the middle of a bloodbath in Homs, they are simply incendiary."
The West and Arab countries had agreed to numerous changes in the text this week to accommodate Russian demands. In the end, it was not enough.
Vitaly Churkin, Russia's UN ambassador, told the council that the draft did not "accurately reflect the real state of affairs, and sent an unbalanced signal to the parties".
Mr Churkin accused "some influential members of the international community who have been undermining the possibility of a settlement in Syria by calling for regime change".
The Chinese ambassador, Li Badong, said China had voted against because it believed divisions on the council should have been resolved first. He said Russia's request to discusss amendments was reasonable.
The defeated resolution would have fully supported the Arab League plan for a "a Syrian-led political transition to a democratic, plural political system".
The call for Mr Assad to step aside was cut from the draft under the Russian veto threat. Western diplomats said full support for the Arab League would have implied that Mr Assad would step down, as that is a key part of the plan.
At Moscow's insistence, a voluntary arms embargo on Syria was also cut from the draft. Russia is a major arms supplier to Damascus.
In addition, the rejected text made clear that it was not authorising outside military intervention.
It was not clear what impact the vetoed resolution would have on the ground in Syria.
Before the vote, a Western diplomat said the resolution "has the potential to make a difference on the ground". He said Russian and Chinese support would send " a huge signal to the people and leadership of Syria".