Yahya al-Sinwar Echoes Karbala Narrative, Highlights Iran’s Growing Influence


A report in “The Wall Street Journal” revealed messages from Yahya al-Sinwar, Hamas leader in Gaza, comparing the battle in Gaza to the Battle of Karbala, stating, “We must proceed on the same path we started. Or let it be a new Karbala.” This unusual invocation of Shia symbolism by a Sunni leader highlights Iran’s growing influence over parts of Hamas. Al-Sinwar’s reference to Karbala signals recognition of Iran’s support, which includes military aid and strategic guidance.

This alignment with Iran’s narrative underscores possible internal divisions within Hamas, with some leaders favoring continued conflict and others leaning towards ceasefire negotiations. Iran was quick to leverage Al-Sinwar’s Karbala narrative to extend its influence, positioning itself as a leader of Islamic resistance against Israel and the West.

The Karbala narrative is central to Iran’s propaganda and recruitment efforts, resonating with its Shia proxies in Lebanon (Hezbollah), Iraq (Shiite militias), and Yemen (Houthis). These groups, forming the Axis of Resistance, support Hamas’s war with Israel using Iranian-made missiles and drones.

Gaza, the “new Karbala”

The report in “The Wall Street Journal” allegedly revealed messages sent by Yahya alSinwar, the leader of Hamas in Gaza, to senior Hamas officials, including a telegram in which he compared the battle in Gaza to the death of Imam Hussein during the Battle of Karbala (October 10, 680 AD) stating, “We must proceed on the same path we started. Or let it be a new Karbala,” has garnered significant interest in Iran. It was quoted in the main headlines of “Kayhan,” Iran’s leader mouthpiece, and media channels affiliated with the IRGC and Iranian security apparatuses. AlSinwar’s quotes were also extensively quoted in the Palestinian and Arab media.

The use of the introductory Shia myth of the Battle of Karbala by al-Sinwar, a Sunni, as reported by WSJ, is highly unusual and intriguing, given the historical rivalry between Sunni and Shia Islam. This is particularly notable, although Sunni Hamas has benefitted from generous support from Shia Iran over the years as part of the Islamic Republic’s national security strategy to encircle Israel with a “fire belt.”

If the WSJ report is authentic, Yahya al-Sinwar probably uses the key Shia narrative of Karbala to define the current war in Gaza to draw a powerful parallel between the historical martyrdom of Imam Hussein and the contemporary struggle of Palestinians against Israel.

Iran’s growing influence over Hamas

Al-Sinwar ‘s reference to Karbala might be evidence of Iran’s growing influence over specific sectors of Hamas leadership. By invoking a central Shia narrative, al-Sinwar might be recognizing and honoring the substantial support that Hamas has received from Iran over the years. This support has been crucial in terms of military (rockets. Missiles, explosives, sniper rifles) financial aid, military training, propagation, and strategic guidance in the ongoing struggle against Israel. By referencing Karbala, Al-Sinwar might signal a deeper ideological alignment with Iran’s narrative of martyrdom and resistance.

Al-Sinwar’s Karbala quote could indeed signal internal divisions within Hamas regarding the strategy and direction of the war in Gaza in particular and the future of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in general, with differing views on whether to continue fighting or pursue ceasefire negotiations and settlement. Al-Sinwar’s invocation of Karbala and his emphasis on continuing the struggle at all costs may highlight a more hardline stance within Hamas’s leadership. This could contrast with other exterior leadership who might be more inclined towards a ceasefire agreement and a future Hudna (truce or a long ceasefire)

The exterior leadership might be under differing levels of external pressure from regional (Qatar and Egypt) and international (United States) mediators. Thus, While Al-Sinwar might be aligning more closely with senior Iranian IRGC Quds Force and Hizballah influence and their narrative of martyrdom-type resistance, other Hamas leaders could be swayed by pressure from other Arab states or international bodies advocating for a ceasefire.

Across time and death

Iran amplifies Al-Sinwar’s narrative of Karbala for its purposes. By linking the Palestinian struggle with the Shia narrative of Karbala, Iran aims to extend its influence beyond Shia communities to include Sunni groups, particularly those who disagree with their rulers’ policies of mending fences with Israel. This allows Iran to position itself as the leader of a broader Islamic resistance against oppression and injustice, particularly against Israel and the West. The martyrdom of Hussein ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, in the Battle of Karbala on October 10, 680 AD (10th of Muharram, 61 AH), is a pivotal event in Islamic history. Hussein led a small group of followers against the larger army of Yazid ibn Muawiya, the Umayyad caliph. Hussein’s refusal to pledge allegiance to Yazid, whom he considered an illegitimate and tyrannical ruler, led to his rebellion.

The Battle of Karbala culminated in the brutal massacre of Hussein ibn Ali and his companions, including several members of his family. Hussein’s martyrdom at Karbala is woven deeply – across time and death – into the fabric of Shia identity and consciousness, epitomizing the principles of resistance, sacrifice, and standing up against tyranny.

This historical event not only serves as a religious observance but also acts as a potent symbol and motivator for the Islamic Republic of Iran and its Shia proxies. Iran and its allies leverage the narrative of Hussein’s martyrdom to galvanize support in their ongoing struggle against Israel and the West, portraying their resistance as a continuation of Hussein’s fight against oppression and injustice.

Iran is indeed drawing a comparison between Yazid, a symbol of tyranny and injustice in Shia Islam, and Israel. By doing so, Iran seeks to link the Palestinian struggle with the historic Battle of Karbala, portraying Israel as the modern-day oppressor similar to Yazid.

In essence, the legacy of Karbala is not just a historical or religious event for Iran and its Shia proxies but a powerful tool for ideological, political, and military strategy. It connects past struggles with present-day conflicts, creating a compelling narrative that motivates and legitimizes their actions on the global stage.

This narrative aims to resonate not only with Shia communities but also with Sunni groups, especially those opposed to their rulers’ policies of normalizing (Abraham Accords) relations with Israel.

Iran and its proxy allies skillfully leverage the narrative of Hussein’s martyrdom to galvanize support in their ongoing struggle against Israel and the West. By drawing parallels between the battle of Karbala and contemporary conflicts, they portray their resistance as a direct continuation of Hussein’s fight against oppression and injustice. This comparison serves several key purposes:

Ideological Justification: The narrative provides a powerful ideological justification for their actions. By framing their struggle as part of a historical and religious continuum, Iran and its proxies can claim moral high ground and legitimacy in their fight against perceived oppressors.

Martyrdom and Sacrifice: The emphasis on martyrdom and sacrifice resonates deeply within Shia culture. By highlighting the willingness of individuals to give their lives for a cause, Iran and its proxies (including Sunnis) reinforce a culture of resistance that idolizes those who die in the struggle, thereby encouraging more to join their ranks.

Axis of Resistance Executes Iran’s Regional Goals The story of Karbala is a central theme in propaganda and recruitment efforts. It is used to draw recruits, galvanize fighters, and gain the sympathy and support of Shia populations across the Middle East, particularly in countries with significant Shia populations like Lebanon (Hezballah), Iraq (Shiite pro-Iranian militias), and Yemen (Houthis). These groups collectively form the Axis of Resistance, which actively pursues and implements Iran’s broader regional goals. In the current conflict in Gaza, this alliance is manifested through coordinated attacks on Israel using Iranian-made or Iranian-designed missiles, ballistic missiles, and drones. By leveraging these sophisticated weapons, the Axis of Resistance not only supports Hamas but also amplifies Iran’s strategic influence and military presence in the region.  

Propaganda and subversion Iran also uses the narrative of Karbala to undermine Sunni rulers in the region, portrayed as pro-Israeli, “oppressive or unjust”. This is especially evident in Bahrain, where a Sunni minority rules over a Shia majority. Iran’s support for Shia opposition groups in Bahrain is framed as a continuation of Hussein’s struggle against oppression. The Iranian regime portrays the Bahraini Shia as modern-day embodiments of Hussein, standing up against a Yazid-like Sunni ruling class. By casting Western powers and their allies as modern-day embodiments of Yazid, the oppressor of Karbala, Iran positions itself as the defender of justice and righteousness. This narrative helps to build a coalition against Western influence in the region, fostering a sense of shared struggle among disparate groups.

​Iran Dossier “We must proceed on the same path we started. Or let it be a new Karbala.” 

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