The resolution would have referred Syria's crisis, now in its fourth year, to the world's permanent war crimes tribunal for investigation of possible war crimes and crimes against humanity, without specifically targeting either the government or the opposition.
Before the vote, U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson pleaded with council members to find unity and "put an end to this long nightmare," saying the council's credibility was at stake. French Ambassador Gerard Araud warned, "A veto would cover up all crimes. It would be vetoing justice."
But Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin walked into the council meeting with a smile, telling reporters, "I'm going to be boringly predictable."
Churkin, who had called the vote a French "publicity stunt" that would hurt efforts to find a political solution to a crisis, lashed out at France again on Thursday. He asked why France was damaging the unity of the five veto-wielding permanent members, who had agreed on earlier resolutions to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons and on improving delivery of humanitarian aid.
"Is it just to try once again to create a pretext for armed intervention in the Syrian conflict?" Churkin asked.
China's deputy U.N. ambassador Wang Min echoed Churkin, adding that a referral to the ICC won't lead to an early resumption of peace talks.
Frustration has soared as the international community struggles to find a solution to the war, deliver humanitarian aid to almost 3.5 million Syrians in need and end impunity for horrific crimes. Attempts at peace talks are at a standstill, leading the joint U.N.-Arab league envoy who tried to broker them to resign.
U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power had her speech ready for the promised veto. "Sadly, because of the decision by the Russian Federation to back the Syrian regime no matter what it does, the Syrian people will not see justice today. They will see crime, but not punishment."
The resolution would have condemned the "widespread violation" of human rights and international humanitarian law by Syrian authorities and pro-government militias as well as abuses by "non-state armed groups" during the last three years. It would have authorized the ICC to investigate "the situation in Syria," without targeting either side.
"It is to Russia and China's shame that they have chosen to block efforts to achieve justice for the Syrian people," said British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant.
The Security Council has been deeply divided over Syria, with Syrian allies Russia and China at odds with the U.S., its Western allies and other members who support the opposition.
"Russia and China's vote for continued impunity is a disgrace of historic proportion," said Richard Dicker, director of international justice at Human Rights Watch. The opposition Syrian Coalition also called the vetoes a "disgrace."
Syria is not a party to the Rome Statute that established the International Criminal Court, so the only way it can be referred to The Hague, Netherlands-based tribunal is by the Security Council.
Syria's U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari who lobbied countries not to support the resolution, told the council that it was based on "nothing but mendacious allegations and fabricated lies."
Power brought a Syrian activist, Qusai Zakariya, to the council and told his story. Because of the vetoes, the U.S. ambassador said, Zakariya, he will not be able to testify before the ICC about an August 2013 chemical weapons attacks in his hometown Moadamiya, when he was left for dead but managed to start breathing again.
Zakariya, who sat in the visitors' section, did not get to speak before the council. Still, he told The Associated Press later that Syria has for decades been represented at the U.N. "by dictators" and this was the first time "free Syria" was represented.
He said he walked out before Churkin and Ja'afari addressed the council because "I couldn't just stay there and hear all those lies."
The U.S., Britain and France vowed to keep pursing justice despite Thursday's defeat.
France's Araud said Australia, Luxembourg and Jordan are working on a draft resolution that would "further" the Syria humanitarian resolution approved earlier this year, which has largely failed to get aid to millions in need.
Araud later told reporters in an admission of frustration: "There is a moment you feel powerless ... in front of barbarians and their supporters."