PARIS - President Emmanuel Macron hit back at Bashar al-Assad on Tuesday after the Syrian leader accused France of supporting terrorism in the war-torn country, saying the comment was “unacceptable”.

Assad had on Monday called Paris “a standard-bearer of support for terrorism in Syria since the early days of the conflict”, referring to early French support for rebels fighting his regime.

Macron emphasised that France has been focused for years on destroying the Islamic State group as part of a US-led coalition.“We have been consistent since the beginning” in fighting IS, Macron said at a joint press conference with NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg. As the brutal Syrian war grew out of anti-government protests in 2011, France was among Western countries insisting that Assad must go.

Macron’s predecessor Francois Hollande confirmed in 2014 that France had sent weapons to anti-Assad fighters, after providing logistical support to rebels it considered moderate, including Kurds.

It launched air strikes against IS positions in September 2015, intensifying them two months later after the jihadists claimed responsibility for terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 130 people.

After Macron won the presidency in May, he confirmed that the policy had shifted towards prioritising the destruction of IS rather than ousting Assad, warning of a “failed state” if the leader were forcibly removed.

In a televised interview Sunday, Macron called Assad “an enemy of the Syrian people” who should ultimately face a war crimes court.

But he nonetheless said it was crucial to engage him in diplomacy, calling for the regime and opposition forces to join new peace talks next year after the failure of the latest round in Geneva last week.

Paris blamed Damascus for the failure, accusing Assad’s government of an “irresponsible strategy of obstruction”.

Assad’s fate has been the stumbling block to progress in every round of UN-backed indirect negotiations in Geneva so far between his representatives and those of the Syrian opposition.

Damascus favours talks to be organised in Sochi, Russia, in 2018 by Moscow, the regime’s main ally, over the Geneva process.

More than 340,000 people have been killed since the conflict began in March 2011.