By CNN's Charley Keyes
The State Department was quick Tuesday to challenge comments by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that he did not have control of his country's security forces amid the bloody crackdown on his political opponents.
"I find it ludicrous that he is attempting to hide behind some kind of shell game, but also some sort of claim that he doesn't exercise authority in his own country," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.
"He has had opportunities in the past to end the violence," Toner said, listing initiatives presented by the Arab League, Turkey, other countries and the United Nations.
"He has rejected all of them, usually through a long, convoluted process where he plays for time" Toner said at his afternoon briefing at the State Department. "There is just no indication he is doing anything other than cracking down in the most brutal fashion on a peaceful opposition movement."
Toner was responding to a question about an ABC television interview Monday conducted by Barbara Walters with al-Assad. An ABC producer said that the al-Assad told Walters, "I am the president. I don't own the country so they are not my forces"; and "There is a difference between having a policy to crack down between having some mistakes committed by some officials. There is a big difference."
Also Tuesday, the State Department announced that U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford is returning to Syria, and is scheduled to arrive late Tuesday. Amid fears for Ford's personal safety, he was brought back to Washington six weeks ago, "for consultations" in diplomatic-speak.
His return coincides with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's meeting with members of the Syrian opposition in Geneva, and is an additional signal of the Obama administration's outreach to critics of al-Assad.
Toner said the Syrian government had been informed of Ford's return and the United States expects Syria to live up to its responsibility to protect the ambassador.
"He's going to continue the same kind of work he did previously, which is delivering our message of support for the Syrian people and trying to provide reliable reporting on the situation on the ground, and engaging as best he can, given the limitations, the full spectrum of Syrian society on how to both end the bloodshed and begin a democratic transition," Toner said.