Already tense relations between the U.S. and Syria grew more strained on Thursday after Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, began a two-day visit to the central city of Hama, the seat of mass anti-regime protests, a general strike, and a major government crackdown in recent days. The State Department says Ford is there "to make absolutely clear with his physical presence that we stand with those Syrians who are expressing their right to speak for change," adding that U.S. officials notified the Syrian government that an embassy team would be traveling to the volatile city. Syrian officials, meanwhile, claim the ambassador never obtained permission and that his visit "is clear evidence of the US involvement in the ongoing events in Syria and its bids to aggravate the situations which destabilize Syria." What's the larger meaning of the row? It indicates the U.S. is stepping up the pressure on Syria, a shift evident in Ford's recent actions in the country.

When President Obama appointed Ford, a career Middle East diplomat, as the U.S. ambassador to Syria in 2010, he was actually the first person to hold the post in five years because of diplomatic tensions between the two countries. In this photo released by SANA in January, Ford presents his credentials to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad:

Obama's effort to engage Syria, however, was put on ice as anti-government protests erupted in Syria in mid-March, and the U.S. soon imposed sanctions on the regime. In June, Ford went on a government-organized tour of Jisr al-Shoughour after spotty reports of deadly clashes between armed groups or military defectors and Syrian security forces in the northern town (in the picture above, Ford covers his nose from the smell of dead bodies during the visit). At the time, the State Department had strong words for the regime, noting that Ford had seen "for himself the results of the Syrian government's brutality." But others were skeptical. It's unclear how Ford gathered evidence of the regime's brutality on such a "sanitized tour," the AP wrote.  

This time, however, Ford, who has reportedly been joined by the French ambassador, is traveling to Hama without government "minders" and explicitly supporting the protesters in a marked escalation of America's diplomatic pressure on Assad. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland acknowledged as much, telling Reuters that as Assad continues to "surround peaceful towns like Hama with tanks and security forces," the U.S. is increasingly focusing "on giving our support to those Syrians on the ground who are organizing themselves and who are making clear that they want change." The shift in strategy has analysts debating whether more robust U.S. support hurts or helps the Syrian protest movement. Foreign Policy's Blake Hounshell thinks it won't do much damage: 

The Syrian regime sees an opening, and has sought to paint Ford's visit as proof positive that the evil Americans are behind the actions of the "sabateurs" who are bent on destroying the country and neutralizing its "resistance" to Israel.

Will it work? Perhaps on some Syrians, but I think we're well past the point where too many folks are buying what the regime is selling. 

As for what Ford's seeing in Hama today? Al Jazeera is highlighting video allegedly showing Ford moving through the Friday protests in an SUV and being welcomed with olive branches and roses:

Al Jazeera reports that with security forces absent, the demonstrations in Hama "have an almost carnival-like atmosphere, with protesters carrying a giant Syrian flag extended for hundreds of meters through the centre of the city, while the main clock tower has been draped in a purple banner reading, 'Long live free Syria. Down with Bashar al-Assad.'" You can see the giant flag in the clip below:

Update: The New York Times posts another video that appears to show protesters cheering as Ford's car passes and chanting, "The People Want to Topple the Regime!"