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Jordanians and Syrians living in Jordan hold Syrian and Russian flags during a demonstration in support of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Amman, Jordan.MUHAMMAD HAMED/Reuters

Russia and China again thwarted efforts to slap Syria with punitive sanctions as both used their vetoes Thursday to defeat a United Nations Security Council resolution.

"Two permanent members of the council are prepared to defend Assad to the bitter end," said Susan Rice, the Obama administration's ambassador to the UN. President Barack Obama had called his Russian counterpart earlier in the week, hoping to persuade Vladimir Putin to stop defending Bashar al-Assad in a brutal civil war that has killed more than 16,000, many of them innocent civilians.

Russia, which along with the Islamic theocracy in Iran, remains Syria's staunchest friend and primary arms-supplier, was joined by China in vetoing the resolution. It was the third time the two veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council had blocked attempts by the Western powers to impose sanctions on Syria in an effort to force Mr. al-Assad from power.

In Syria, the ophthalmologist-turned-dictator surfaced, more than 24 hours after he mysteriously disappeared from view following Wednesday's assassination strike that wiped out much of his inner circle. Killed were: Defence Minister Daoud Rajiha (the most senior Christian); Assef Shawkat, a ruthless military commander married to the President's older sister; and deputy vice-president Hassan Turkmani. Others, including Interior Minister Mohammed al-Shaar were wounded.

Mr. al-Assad's brief televised appearance Thursday seemed intended to refute rumours that he too had been injured in the bomb blast that tore through a war cabinet meeting.

The stalemate at the UN may sound the death knell for the tiny and, so far, ineffective UN observer force of 300 unarmed officers who have been in Syria since the spring. Its mandate expires Friday.

There was plenty of hostility at the Security Council. Vitaly Churkin, Russia's UN ambassador, accused Britain, France and the United States of attempting to "fan the flames of confrontation," while Ms. Rice retorted that Russia and China, by siding with the Syrian dictator, bear the blame for the "unstoppable violence."

Russia has long made it clear that it believes Western powers hoodwinked the Security Council last year by turning a "no-fly zone" resolution over Libya into a NATO bombing campaign to oust Colonel Moammar Gadhafi, and that it will never approve a Chapter 7 resolution – one that mandates force – in the Syrian crisis.

In Washington, with a November election looming, the Russian veto provides a chance to blame Mr. Putin for blocking international action. But it also alleviates pressure to intervene in the increasingly bloody, complicated and sectarian conflict.

While Washington claims to be hamstrung by the lack of a UN mandate, the reality is that the United States, along with Canada and other close allies, have ignored the absence of UN mandates in previous crises. For instance, over Russian objections, the U.S.-led air war in Kosovo in 1999 pounded the Serb military for months.

On Thursday, meanwhile, fighting continued unabated inside Damascus and across Syria. Residents were fleeing some neighbourhoods as the army, according to unverifiable reports, began shelling the capital from heights outside the city. Rebels also claimed to be in control of part of the Syrian-Iraqi border.

After four decades of brutal dictatorship and 17 months of increasingly violent internal strife that has spiralled into a full-blown civil war, collapse of the regime seemed only a matter of time. "The Assad regime, it's clear, is losing control," Pentagon spokesman George Little said at a briefing Thursday. "There's momentum against Assad. We're seeing that with increased defections, a strengthened and more united opposition is operating across the country."

In Washington, Moscow and Jerusalem contingency planners are grappling with a fast-moving set of uncertain – but mostly dire – scenarios. "It's getting very, very messy," Jordan's King Abdullah warned. "If it breaks down, if civil order breaks down to the point of no return, then it'll take years to fix Syria."

As collapse of the al-Assad regime suddenly seemed an imminent possibility, senior Obama administration officials, including military planners, were scrambling to work up contingency plans for worst-case scenarios. Unlike Egypt, where close military ties gave Washington crucial leverage over the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, or Libya, where the U.S., Canadian and other allied warplanes allowed Western powers to dictate the pace of the war that ousted Col. Gadhafi, events in Syria are mostly beyond outside influence.

Aside from Russia and Iran, both still loyally propping up the al-Assad regime, few countries, including the United States, hold much sway in Damascus or with the rabble of rebel forces, some of whom are evidently Islamic extremists.