By CNN Foreign Affairs Correspondent Jill Dougherty and CNN National Security Producer Jamie Crawford
The defeat of a U.N. Security Council draft resolution condemning Syria for its violent crackdown on anti-government demonstrators leaves the resolution's backers frustrated and wondering whether the two vetoes that killed it were really about Syria.
"This looks very much like a sort of punitive veto, almost, to express some sort of dissatisfaction and punishment about Libya," a Western diplomat, speaking anonymously because of the sensitivity of the issue, told CNN.
The two countries that vetoed the resolution, Russia and China, had argued that even in its watered-down form without economic sanctions, it was a slippery slope to military intervention, a la the NATO operation to protect anti-government protesters in Libya - a fig-leaf for efforts to carry out regime change.
Tuesday evening, after the Security Council vote on Syria, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, lashed out at that notion, saying, "Let there be no doubt: This is not about military intervention. This is not about Libya," Rice said. "That is a cheap ruse by those who would rather sell arms to the Syrian regime than stand with the Syrian people."
"The courageous people of Syria," she said, "can now clearly see who on this council supports their yearning for liberty and universal human rights and who does not."
At the State Department Wednesday, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, avoiding - as Rice did - naming Russia and China specifically, picked up the theme. "I would call your attention to what's happening on the Syrian opposition websites and blogs, where there is enormous outrage and anger and disappointment, particularly directed at the vetoing countries."
She added, "I saw this morning a gruesome cartoon that had been up on one of the Syrian websites with two spigots, looked like oil spigots, with blood dripping from them, with the names of those countries plastered on them."
Russia's U.N. ambassador, however, gave another explanation for Moscow's veto.
"I understand that my European colleagues are upset, having not obtained a resolution which they were trying to obtain," Vitaly Churkin said. "Some capitals are being overly hasty in passing their judgment about the illegitimacy of the leaders in Syria."
The United States, France, Great Britain and other supporters of the resolution now are regrouping.
Some countries are taking their own steps to pressure al-Assad. After the U.N. vote, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his government is preparing its own sanctions on Syria.
The European Union already has sanctions in place and could introduce more, according to Western diplomats.
The United States already has "cut off our relationship completely on the economic front," Nuland said.
Despite the frustration, former Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, currently with the Council on Foreign Relations, told CNN he is somewhat more optimistic. He pointed to news that, despite the U.N. veto, members of the Syrian opposition are expected to visit Moscow this month.
The Russians "are hedging their bets," Abrams said. "They vetoed this resolution but they understand that Assad is in deep trouble and may not survive, and so they are placing at least a side bet on the opposition."
Sanctions, Abrams asserted, are hurting the al-Assad regime. "I think the defeat in the Security Council of the European resolution obviously isn't a good thing, but I don't think it gives much wiggle room to Assad," he said.
U.S. officials agree that sanctions - especially European sanctions - are having an effect and are sending a message to al-Assad's supporters in the Syrian elite that things will continue to get worse for them.
The Obama administration may be disappointed, frustrated, even angry at the Security Council vote. If the United Nations, at least for now, won't act, the United States will continue to lobby other countries to take economic action on their own, officials say.
"The number of countries that are prepared to tighten the noose on the regime continues to grow, and will grow," the State Department's Nuland said, "and we will be working with them."