At the time, Turkey's government spoke out against Bashar al-Assad's regime but took no military action. In the face of last week's civilian deaths, however, the Turks retaliated with their own mortar strikes, raising the risk of a broader war.
It is fairly clear that none of the states in the region wants a wider war or is consciously moving toward one. The Syrian rounds that killed civilians in Lebanon and Turkey do not seem to have been intentional; rather, they were directed at anti-Assad forces operating near the border.
Despite intentions, however, any escalation of violence can easily lead to further escalation as states move to protect their territory and citizens, yielding reprisals and counter-reprisals. In fact, since the first incident last week, Turkey and Syria have exchanged fire every day as fighting between pro- and anti-Assad forces continues along the border.
What, then, are Turkey's intentions in authorizing and using retaliatory force? Foremost, the government is making a statement to the Turkish public that it's willing and able to protect its citizens against external threats.
Again, this was not the first time Turkish citizens have been killed or injured in violence related to the turmoil in Syria. In many ways, Turkey has exhibited remarkable restraint in waiting as long as it has to engage in armed retaliation. In this sense, the Turkish response seems limited and rational.
Beyond placating domestic security concerns, the Turkish response also seems designed to serve two diplomatic purposes. First, the engagement of Turkey's military, the second largest in NATO, increases the pressure on Assad's regime to put an end to the strife by stepping down or making other concessions.
More indirectly, Turkey may be attempting to urge its NATO allies, especially the United States, and other international actors to become more involved in the Syrian crisis. Thus far, Turkey, along with Lebanon and Jordan, has borne the brunt of Syrian refugees and spillover violence. The influx of refugees is a continuing problem, requiring food, shelter, and health care, and straining Turkish resources.
The only serious external intervention designed to end the violence in Syria to date, a U.N. mission, has come to a halt. After a year and a half of conflict, the mortar strikes created a pretext for Turkey to ramp up the pressure on other key players to share the burden.
In the end, though, while Turkey may raise the stakes and broaden the conflict, it can't control the response of the Syrian regime, anti-Assad forces, or the international community. Indeed, the chaos in Syria defies even the best efforts to predict or influence the endgame. This basic uncertainty will soon confront either President Obama or Mitt Romney with a difficult situation that can't be ignored.
Brian Mello is an assistant professor of political science at Muhlenberg College, where Mark Stein is an associate professor and the chair of the history department.