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By Hari Prasad Contributing Writer May 29, 2015

The schools of thought that dominate the field of international relations are often ignored in examinations of contemporary conflicts and issues. Yet these paradigms are quite useful in understanding present-day foreign policy challenges and their drivers. In applying the idea of the security dilemma to the resurgence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) this article illustrates the value of one such theoretical framework: realism.

The security dilemma (also known as the spiral model) remains one of the most important concepts in international relations and the school of realism today. The basic premise of the security dilemma is that as one state takes measures to increase its security (e.g. increasing its military strength, making alliances), another state might take similar, reactive measures to make up for the shift in the balance of power. If states perceive the actions of other actors to be offensive in nature, the change in the balance of power is perceived as detrimental to their own security. This creates a cycle in which both states will continually take measures, such as increasing military strength or forming alliances, to increase their security. In turn, tensions between the two states can escalate into conflict, even if conflict is not desired.

In 1993, Barry Posen applied the security dilemma concept to the issue of ethnic conflict. His application of the model to non-state actors has important implications for intra-state conflicts. Just as anarchy in the international system makes security a primary concern for states, the collapse of a central government can create a similar anarchical situation within a country that results in a security dilemma. Posen argues that two characteristics determine the intensity of a security dilemma: the distinction between offensive and defensive forces and the comparative effectiveness of offensive and defensive actions. If offensive action is more effective and forces are indistinguishable, conflict escalation is more likely for states with the end goals of survival and continued security. In the case of ethnic conflict, the insecure group, unsure of the intentions of its counterpart, will choose offensive capabilities, thus amplifying the security dilemma. Finally, Posen explains that ethnic groups turn to history to gauge the intentions of other ethnic groups. The resulting sense of ‘groupness’ is inherently offensive, which contributes to the intensity of a security dilemma.

Using Posen’s adapted principles of the security dilemma to frame Sunni-Shia relations in Iraq may help explain the rise of ISIS. The Maliki government was primarily Shia, and made no attempt to form an inclusive government. The Sunni Iraqi community accused the Maliki regime of authoritarianism and sectarianism, and such grievances led Sunni tribes and cities to ally with ISIS fighters. Maliki’s election followed the period of Saddam Hussein’s rule in which a secular albeit Sunni dominated regime held sway for decades. Consequently, the rise of the Maliki government led to fears, both real and imaginary, that the Sunni Iraqis would, in turn, be marginalized. These fears have been exacerbated by recent events in Iraq. Since the fall of the Hussein government, there has been violence between Sunni and Shia forces. In some cases, this fighting has even resulted in the cleansing of different religious groups from Sunni and Shia dominated areas. Sunnis have also tried to various methods to try to fight this marginalization.

Thus, a recent history of sectarian violence between the two groups in Iraq evoked historical memories of conflict between Sunnis and Shias in Islamic history. The influence that Iran and Saudi Arabia have in the country fuels this polarization. With the rise of Shias in politics and with Iranian and American support to the central government, the balance of power changed significantly in favor of Iraqi Shias. As a state would react to ensure its survival after a major shift in the international balance of power, so too did the Sunni communities respond to a change in their political position. Posen argues that policy makers may benefit from referring to the security dilemma to identify the potential breakout of ethnic conflict and enact policies that would help alleviate the ethnic tension. However, there remains the question of what should be done if ethnic conflict has already begun.

The current war against ISIS will likely exacerbate the security dilemma between the Sunnis and Shias in Iraq. With Iran providing support to the Iraqi government and with other Gulf States providing support to the Sunni factions, sectarian identities are of heightened salience in the region. This external interference has helped Shias and Sunnis to solidify their positions instead of compromising. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has worked to repair bridges with the Sunni Gulf states and with the Iraqi Kurds, but the role that Shia militias play in anti-ISIS efforts is still large. Many of the active Shia militias remain connected to prominent Iraqi politicians and the large-scale abuse of the Sunnis by such militias is contributing to the aggravation of the security dilemma. Ultimately, unless Prime Minister al-Abadi reins in the militias, tensions between the Sunnis and Shias will worsen.

The Prime Minister would also be wise to continue the United States’ policy from the Anbar Awakening-recruiting from Sunni tribal areas would allow al-Abadi to separate himself from his predecessor’s practices of forging predominantly Shia alliances. The effects of the Maliki government’s detrimental policies are still felt across Iraq today, and Iraq’s new political leadership must address this legacy.

Overall, the modified application of the security dilemma suitably explains the present situation in Iraq and should be used to try and prevent violence going forward. Unless the United States encourages reconciliation between the Sunnis and Shias, the war against ISIS will only serve to further divide the two communities.

Hari Prasad is a first-year graduate student in the International Affairs program at the Elliott School of International Affairs. He focuses on the Middle East, South Asia, and Security Studies. He received his BA in International Affairs and Economics at Marquette University. He can be reached at

Photo was taken by an Iraqi Citizen, and Iraq was not a participant in the Berne Convention, therefore the photo is in the Public Domain under CC-BY-SA-3.0. Image Cropped.