- Associated Press - Sunday, March 11, 2012

BEIRUT (AP) — Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan left Syria on Sunday without a deal to end the bloody year-old conflict as regime forces mounted a new assault on rebel strongholds in the north.

Mr. Annan, the world body’s special envoy to Syria, said he had presented President Bashar Assad with concrete proposals “which will have a real impact on the ground.”

“Once it’s agreed, it will help launch the process and help end the crisis on the ground,” he told reporters at the end of his two-day visit to Syria.

Mr. Annan, who also met with Syrian opposition leaders and businessmen in Damascus, said he was optimistic following two sets of talks with Mr. Assad, but he acknowledged that resolving the crisis would be tough.

“It’s going to be difficult, but we have to have hope,” he said.

A Free Syrian Army fighter runs for cover during fighting against government troops in Idlib, Syria, on Saturday, March 10, 2012. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
A Free Syrian Army fighter runs for cover during fighting against government ... more >

The former U.N. chief called for reforms that would create “a solid foundation for a democratic Syria,” but added, “You have to start by stopping the killing and the misery and the abuse that is going on today and then give time for a political settlement.”

The ongoing bloodshed cast a pall over the U.N. efforts to end the country’s yearlong conflict, with both the regime and the opposition refusing talks with the other.

In his discussions with Mr. Assad on Saturday, Mr. Annan made several proposals to end the political crisis and start a political dialogue. He was rebuffed by the president, who rejected any immediate negotiations with the opposition, striking a further blow to already faltering international efforts for talks to end the conflict.

Mr. Assad told Mr. Annan that a political solution is impossible as long as “terrorist groups” threaten the country.

The opposition’s political leadership also has rejected dialogue, saying talk is impossible after a crackdown that the United Nations estimates has killed more than 7,500 people. That situation makes it likely that the conflict will continue to edge toward civil war.

Mr. Annan left Syria later Sunday, headed for Qatar, a U.N. spokesman said on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

Syrian forces, meanwhile, kept up an offensive against rebel strongholds in the north of the country and shelled neighborhoods in the restive central city of Homs, activists said.

Military units loyal to Mr. Assad appear to have been freed up after finally crushing lightly armed rebels in the Homs neighborhood of Baba Amr last week, and are on the attack in Idlib province, across the border from key opposition supply bases in Turkey.

Troops on Saturday launched a long-anticipated assault to crush the opposition in Idlib province, bombarding its main city with tank shells from all sides and clashing with rebel fighters struggling to hold back an invasion.

Syrian forces had been building up for days around Idlib, the capital of a hilly, agricultural province along the Syria-Turkey border that has been a hotbed of protests against Mr. Assad’s regime.

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