Syrian government forces struck back against the opposition groups with attack helicopters and shelling around Damascus while the whereabouts of President Bashar al-Assad, who has not been seen publically since Wednesday's blast, his wife and his three young children remained unknown.
As fighting raged in the capital for a fifth day, the chief UN observer warned that Syria was not "on the track for peace." Major General Robert Mood, the Norwegian head of nearly 300 observers sent to the country to monitor a ceasefire that never took effect, left his hotel in Damascus to fly to Geneva after a 90-day UN peace monitoring mission to Syria ended. "It pains me to say, but we are not on track for peace in Syria," Mood told reporters in Damascus, adding that the observers "will become relevant when the political process takes off."
The grim outlook in Syria coincided with a failure of the UN Security Council to renew the observers' mandate, which expires Friday, and impose new sanctions on the Damascus regime under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which could eventually allow the use of force to end the conflict.
That vote had been scheduled for Wednesday but was postponed after key Western nations and Russia failed to agree the text of a resolution aimed ending the escalating violence.
Russia and China vetoed the Security Council resolution that threatened Syrian authorities with sanctions if they did not stop using heavy weapons against the uprising and withdraw troops from towns and cities.
It was the third time that Russia, a key ally of the Syrian government, and China have used their veto power to block UN Security Council resolutions designed to put pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and halt the violence in the 16-month conflict that has killed thousands of people.
The vetoed resolution, which would have extended a UN observer mission in Syria for 45 days, received 11 votes in favor, with two abstentions.
The 15-member council still has time to negotiate another resolution on the fate of the unarmed mission before its initial 90-day mandate expires at midnight on Friday.
Britain, France, Germany and the United States proposed in the vetoed resolution that international envoy Kofi Annan's six-point peace plan be placed under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which allows the council to authorize actions ranging from diplomatic and economic sanctions to military intervention.
Western council members have said they are talking about a threat of sanctions on Syria, not military intervention. Their vetoed resolution had contained a specific threat of sanctions if Syrian authorities did not stop using heavy weapons and withdraw troops from towns and cities within 10 days.
But Russia made clear days before the vote that it would block any resolution on Syria under Chapter 7, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov describing the threat of sanctions against Syria as "blackmail."
Russia has also put forward a resolution to extend the UN mission for 90 days, but it does not contain a threat of sanctions. The Security Council initially approved the deployment of the UN observer mission, known as UNSMIS, to monitor a failed April 12 ceasefire under Annan's peace plan.
If the mission is renewed, UN chief Ban Ki-moon has recommended shifting the emphasis of the work of UNSMIS from the 300 unarmed military observers to civilian staff focusing on a political solution and issues including human rights.
UNSMIS suspended most of its monitoring activity on June 16 due to increased risk from rising violence.
As diplomats scrambled to try to get council to unify, international mediator Kofi Annan condemned the bloodshed in Syria and said it underscored the urgent need for decisive action by world powers to stem the violence and pave the way for political transition.
Russia and China, however, gave no signal that they would change their position ahead of the vote. US President Barack Obama spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin on the phone on Wednesday to discuss Syria ahead of the UN Security Council vote, but both sides admitted that differences remained.
“One can say that Putin and Obama understand the position of the other side better. As for practical paths to resolving the situation, differences remained,” Russian foreign policy adviser Yuri Ushakov said, adding that in their conversation, the Russian leader “was unable to convince” the US.
The White House also said Putin and Obama agreed on the need to stop the violence but differed over the way forward. “They noted the differences our governments have had on Syria, but agreed to have their teams continue to work toward a solution,” the White House said in a statement. After the phone call between Obama and Putin, the Russian and US ambassadors met at the United Nations, but there was no breakthrough.
Ushakov also said Putin had not discussed with Obama or Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who met the Russian president in Moscow on Wednesday, where Assad might go if he left Syria. Asked whether Assad could come to Russia, Ushakov said: “I don’t know; at least I have not heard about this.”
Unlike Russia, China does not have longstanding strategic ties to Assad’s government, but Beijing opposes setting precedents that could potentially be applied to its troubled western regions of Tibet and Xinjiang. China feels burned by Western intervention in Libya, believing that the US and European powers over-interpreted a UN resolution to attack the government of Muammar Gaddafi, not just protect Libyan civilians.“China is deeply worried about the rising tensions in Syria,” the statement said. “China once again called on all related parties in Syria to cease fire immediately.”
Russia and China have incurred criticism from the West as well as Turkey by twice vetoing UN resolutions to increase pressure on Assad. “People are dying, and Moscow and Beijing are still hesitating -- this is absolutely worthy of criticism,” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in Berlin ahead of the vote.
As UN diplomacy went ahead, fighting raged for a fifth day in Damascus. According to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, government forces were firing heavy machine guns and mortar shells and fighting with opposition forces in a number of neighborhoods in the capital.
Many residents were fleeing the Mezzeh neighborhood after troops surrounded it and posted snipers on rooftops while exchanging gunfire with opposition forces.
The observatory, which relies on a network of activists inside Syria, said rebels damaged one helicopter and disabled three military vehicles. They fired rocket-propelled grenades at a police station in the Jdeidet Artouz area, killing at least five officers, the group said.
Syrian state television, on the other hand, warned citizens that gunmen were planning to attack people in the capital using military uniforms as disguises. “Armed men in Tadamon, Midan, Qaa and Nahr Aisha [neighborhoods] are wearing military uniforms with the insignia of the Republican Guard. This confirms they are planning to commit crimes and attack people, exploiting the trust of citizens in our courageous armed forces,” Syria’s official channel said in a message flashed across the screen.
Syria’s 16-month crisis began with protests inspired by the Arab Spring wave of revolutions, but it has evolved into a civil war, with scores of rebel groups fighting to topple Assad. Wednesday’s rebel bomb attack on high-level crisis meeting struck the harshest blow yet at the heart of Assad’s regime. The White House said the bombing showed that Assad was “losing control” of Syria.
Syrian TV confirmed the deaths of Defense Minister Dawoud Rajha, 65, a former army general and the most senior government official to be killed in the rebels’ battle to oust Assad; Gen. Assef Shawkat, 62, the deputy defense minister who is married to Assad’s elder sister, Bushra, and is one of the most feared figures in the inner circle; and Hassan Turkmani, 77, a former defense minister. Turkmani, an ethnic Turkish Sunni Muslim, died of his wounds in the hospital.
Also wounded were Interior Minister Mohammed Shaar and Maj. Gen. Hisham Ikhtiar, who heads the National Security Department. State TV said both were in stable condition.
The Free Syrian Army claimed responsibility for the attack, saying they targeted the room where the top government security officials in charge of crushing the revolt were meeting.