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Moscow-hosted Syrian peace talks end with general statement, Assad's fate not on the agenda

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MOSCOW — Representatives of the Syrian government and the opposition wrapped up four days of consultations in Moscow on Thursday with a general statement avoiding any of the difficult issues surrounding the country's nearly four-year civil war.

Vitaly Naumkin, the head of the Moscow-based Institute for Eastern Studies who moderated the discussions, said Thursday they focused on a platform for future talks and made no attempt to tackle the disputed issues. He said the fate of Syrian President Bashar Assad wasn't on the agenda.

Russia, which has staunchly backed Assad throughout the war that has killed more than 220,0000 people and has turned nearly 4 million Syrians into refugees, hoped that hosting the consultations could help raise its international profile amid tensions with the West over Ukraine.

But top opposition groups, including the main Western-backed Syrian National Coalition, have refused to attend the consultations amid deep distrust of Moscow. Some of the Damascus-based groups also stayed away, citing concerns the talks hold no chance of success.

Faced with the attendance problems, Moscow tried to cast the event as a preparatory meeting.

Naumkin said the discussions involved 32 representatives of the opposition and seven officials from the Assad regime.

"It's already an achievement that those people, who have opposite views, sat down and talked calmly and found some common ground," he said.

PHOTO: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, center, speaks to participants of consultations between representatives of the Syrian government and the Syrian opposition in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2015. Lavrov said the meeting should pave the way for further talks on conditions for a political settlement. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, center, speaks to participants of consultations between representatives of the Syrian government and the Syrian opposition in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2015. Lavrov said the meeting should pave the way for further talks on conditions for a political settlement. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who addressed the participants in the talks Wednesday, said they could help work out confidence-building measures between the government and the opposition, such as local cease-fires, conditions for humanitarian aid deliveries and freeing prisoners.

The meeting ended with a declaration of principles shared by all participants, which included support for Syria's sovereignty and its territorial integrity, a pledge to counter international terrorism, a warning against foreign interference among others.

Bashar Jaafari, who represented the Syrian government in the consultations, said infighting between opposition members made any agreement difficult.

"The disagreement was between the opposition (delegations) themselves," Jaafari said. "We did not hear, once, a united position of the opposition delegations."

Still, Jaafari said there was tentative agreement to continue consultations.

Naumkin said disputed issues, such as prisoner exchanges and humanitarian aid deliveries, were discussed but didn't make it into the statement, which was intended to emphasize points on which the participants agreed.

Naumkin said Moscow would try to organize a follow-up meeting, but wouldn't say when it could be held. He emphasized that the consultations shouldn't be seen as Russia's attempts to circumvent international talks on the Syrian problem.


Diaa Hadid in Beirut contributed to this report.

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PHOTO: Bashar Jaafari, who represented the Syrian government in Moscow consultations between Syrian government and opposition representatives, listens for a question at a news conference in Moscow,  Thursday, Jan. 29, 2015. Jaafari said disagreement between opposition members made any agreement difficult, but added that there was tentative agreement to continue consultations. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
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