* Annan says Syria deal will be tough, but remains
* Former UN chief heads for Qatar
* Syrian forces pursue drive against rebels in northwest
(Adds deaths on Sunday, paragraphs 13-15)
BEIRUT, March 11 (Reuters) - U.N.-Arab League envoy
Kofi Annan said it would be hard to reach a deal to halt
bloodshed in Syria, but expressed optimism after meeting
President Bashar al-Assad for a second day on Sunday.
"It's going to be tough. It's going to be difficult but we
have to have hope," he told reporters in Damascus.
"I am optimistic for several reasons," Annan said, citing a
general desire for peace in Syria. "The situation is so bad and
so dangerous that all of us cannot afford to fail."
The former United Nations chief, who is from Ghana, said:
"I have urged the president to heed the African proverb which
says: 'You cannot turn the wind, so turn the sail'."
Annan, speaking before departing for Qatar, said he had left
"concrete proposals" with Assad for a way out of a conflict that
has cost thousands of lives.
"You have to start by stopping the killings and the misery
and the abuses that are going on today, and then give time (for
a) political settlement," he said.
There was no immediate word from Syrian officials on the
outcome of the talks, but Assad told Annan on Saturday that
"terrorists" spreading chaos and instability were blocking any
political solution, according to the state news agency SANA.
But it said the 46-year-old president had also told Annan he
would help in "any honest effort to find a solution".
Syrians involved in a popular uprising against Assad say
there can be no meaningful dialogue with a leader who has
inflicted such violence and suffering on his own people.
"Him (Assad) stepping down is definitely a first condition
of any discussion or negotiation," Bassma Kodmani of the
opposition Syrian National Council told the BBC on Sunday.
The United Nations says Assad's forces have killed more than
7,500 people in a year-long crackdown on protesters and
insurgents. Authorities say rebels have killed 2,000 soldiers.
Annan's mission has coincided with a Syrian military
offensive against opposition strongholds in the northwest.
Activists said at least four people were killed in the town
of Idlib on Sunday after troops and tanks moved in a day
earlier. Three soldiers and a civilian were also killed in
fighting in the village of Janoudiya in Idlib province on Sunday
morning, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
State news agency SANA said "terrorists" shot dead a former
boxing champion, Ghiath Tayfour, in the city of Aleppo and also
killed a leading Baath Party member in Homs province.
The Observatory said 39 civilians, including 25 in Idlib
province, were killed on Saturday, along with 39 rebels and 20
government soldiers, giving an overall death toll of 98.
ARABS CHIDE RUSSIA, CHINA
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who met Annan in
Cairo on Friday, told the Arab League his country was "not
protecting any regime", but did not believe the Syrian crisis
could be blamed on one side alone.
He called for a ceasefire and humanitarian aid access, but
Qatar and Saudi Arabia sharply criticised Moscow's stance.
Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, who
has led calls for Assad to be isolated and for Syrian rebels to
be armed, said a ceasefire was not enough. Syrian leaders must
be held to account and political prisoners freed, he declared.
Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said shortcomings in
the U.N. Security Council, where Russia and China have twice
vetoed resolutions on Syria, had allowed the killing to go on.
Their position, he said, "gave the Syrian regime a licence
to extend its brutal practices against the Syrian people".
Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which are both ruled by autocrats
and espouse a strict version of Sunni Islam, are improbable
champions of democracy in Syria. Riyadh has an interest in
seeing Assad fall because this could weaken its Shi'ite regional
rival Iran, which has been allied with Syria since 1980.
International rifts have paralysed action on Syria, with
Russia and China opposing Western and Arab calls for Assad, who
inherited power from his father nearly 12 years ago, to quit.
The United States has drafted a fresh U.N. Security Council
resolution, but Washington and Paris have said they are not
optimistic it will be accepted.
Despite their differences, Lavrov and Arab ministers said
they had agreed on the need for an end to violence in Syria.
They also called for unbiased monitoring of events there,
opposition to foreign intervention, delivery of humanitarian aid
and support for Annan's peace efforts.
But the exiled opposition Syrian National Council ruled out
talks while Assad is in power.
"Negotiations can never take place between the victim and
torturer: Assad and his entourage must step down as a condition
before starting any serious negotiations," it said.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will meet Lavrov in
New York on Monday when the Security Council holds a special
meeting on Arab revolts, with Syria likely to be in focus.
(Additional reporting by Marwan Makdesi in Damascus and Peter
Griffiths in London; Writing by Alistair Lyon)