BEIRUT—On the day Syrian anti-aircraft missiles downed an American-made Israeli F-16 fighter jet, a banner boasting of the feat in both Arabic and Hebrew script went up in a village in southern Lebanon. To the northeast, loyalists of Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria, distributed sweets to passersby on the streets of Damascus while the owner of a men’s clothing store put up a sign in his window reading: “Discount on the occasion of the downing of the enemy’s jet!” In a television studio in southern Beirut, the media arm of Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group and stalwart ally of Iran and the Assad regime, broadcast live commentary declaring the incident a major turning point. “We are witnessing a strategic transformation on the ground,” declared one of the pundits. “From now on, we can’t speak about [the] Syrian army, Hezbollah, Yemeni army, Iraqi army, and Iranian army. We must speak about one resistance axis operating in all theaters.”
With the bellicose rhetoric and heightening tensions, the incident seemed certain to finally draw Israel into an all-out military confrontation with Syria—one that could spill into Israel itself and across Jordan and Lebanon. Iran’s vaunted axis would finally have its “total war” against the “Zionist enemy” and its “master” America and the “Jewish monarchs” of Saudi Arabia. But war with Israel is the last thing Iran and Hezbollah want. In reality, Tehran is now threatening to mobilize its entire array of proxies to get what it wants in Syria and throughout the region. So far, it seems to be daring the world to test it.