In his first interview on French television since the start of the Syrian civil war, Syria's President Bashar al-Assad claimed that his intelligence operatives are "in contact" with their French counterparts and denied that his forces had used chemical weapons.
Public television channel France 2 has released two short excerpts from a 25-minute interview between Assad and veteran French anchorman David Pujadas, which will be broadcast in full at 8 PM local time on Monday.
The interview, which has been in the works for over a year, was shot in Damascus over the weekend in a former palace that is used to host official events. During the exchange, Assad was quizzed about Franco-Syrian relations, chemical weapons, the regime's violent crackdown on the opposition, and his political future.
In the first excerpt, Pujadas shows Assad alleged photographic evidence of chemical barrel bombs being dropped from helicopters. The images, says Pujadas, were taken in Aleppo and in Hamah.
"This is not proof," answers Assad, adding that he has never seen such methods be employed by the Syrian army. Asked if he is implying the images have been faked, Assad replies their authenticity should be "verified."
He goes on to deny the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian army, which he says uses only "regular bombs, that can be aimed," and possesses no "armament that can be used indiscriminately."
On Thursday, Syrian doctors presented the UN with video footage allegedly showing three Syrian children dying from chemical exposure after witnesses said that helicopters had dropped barrel bombs filled with chlorine on the northwestern Syrian town of Sarmin. After seeing the video, US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power noted that "only the Assad regime has helicopters" in the conflict.
In August 2012, Barack Obama said that any evidence that Assad was using chemical weapons would cross "red line" and could trigger US military intervention. The Security Council approved a US-Russian brokered plan to remove and destroy Syria's chemical weapons stockpile in September 2013, but chlorine is not considered a chemical weapon on its own.
Like several other countries, including the US and the UK, France cut all diplomatic ties with Syria over Assad's oppressive response to protests against his government, closing its embassy in Damascus and expelling its Syrian ambassador.
Nevertheless, Assad tells Pujadas in the interview that French and Syrian intelligence services are communicating with each other, and claims that French intelligence personnel had traveled to Syria.
"There are some contacts but there's no cooperation," said Assad. "Maybe they came to exchange information, but when you want this type of collaboration, there needs to be goodwill on both sides."
France, he added, cannot call on the regime for help while aiding rebels "who support the terrorists and kill [Syrian] citizens."
The rise of the Islamic State (IS) in Syria has prompted some Western politicians such as US Secretary of State John Kerry to urge their governments to "negotiate" with Assad.
In February, four French parliamentarians traveled to Syria's capital Damascus for an unofficial meeting with Assad, flying in the face of their government's diplomatic stance against Syria. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls described the trip as "an ethical transgression," saying the lawmakers had gone "without warning to meet a butcher."
In an Q&A with Pujada about his interview with Assad, Pujadas said that there had been no attempt by Syrian authorities to field questions ahead of the encounter.
"Having said that, he's not at all conciliatory in the interview and he makes no attempt to improve his image," Pujadas remarked. "That said, he's not desperate. He seemed steadfast on his positions."
When Pujadas was asked if he felt at ease speaking to the controversial leader, he declined to discuss his personal feelings but affirmed that there was "undeniable journalistic value" to the interview.
In January 2012, award-winning France 2 reporter Gilles Jacquier was killed while covering the Syrian civil war in Homs, becoming the first Western journalist to be killed in Syria since the start of the conflict. Some have accused the Syrian government of being behind the attack, which they say was carried out as part of an effort to demonize the budding opposition rebellion.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group, more than220,000people have died in the conflict, which began after nationwide protests against Assad's regime in March 2011 quickly evolved into a full-blown civil war.