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'Contradictory strategy'

Interview: Stephanie Höppner / cmkJuly 4, 2014

Fearing that the violence of the Islamist group ISIS could spread, Saudi Arabia has deployed 30,000 troops to the Iraqi border. It's a highly contradictory strategy, Middle East expert Michael Lüders tells DW.

Militant Islamist fighters wave flags as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province June 30, 2014. The fighters held the parade to celebrate their declaration of an Islamic "caliphate" after the group captured territory in neighbouring Iraq, a monitoring service said. The Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot previously known as Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), posted pictures online on Sunday of people waving black flags from cars and holding guns in the air, the SITE monitoring service said. Picture taken June 30, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer
Image: Reuters

DW: On Thursday (03.07.2014) morning, news broke that Saudi Arabia had moved around 30,000 soldiers to its border with iraq. How credible are these media reports?

Michael Lüders: It seems to have already been confirmed. Rather large troop movements were even observed via satellite.

What does this deployment mean?

The Saudi government wants to protect itself from the events in Iraq. There's a particular concern that extremist ISIS militants from Iraq could make a move south, toward Saudi Arabia. Thus, the move is a preventive measure with the aim of protecting its own borders from attack.

How likely are further advances by ISIS militants?

One can only speculate on that possibility. At the moment, militants are occupied with efforts to extend their influence in Iraq and Syria. But it's understandable for Saudi Arabia to feel threatened. The radical fundamentalism of ISIS fighters could very well turn against the Saudi regime, just like Osama bin Laden turned against Saudi Arabia.

Iraqi soldiers were already stationed at the border - why were they not enough?

Michael Lüders
Lüders: Iraq expects help from neighboring countries in dealing with ISISImage: DW/N. Jolkver

There are different reports about what happened to these soldiers. Supposedly, they have been ordered by their government to return to Baghdad. The background for this decision could be that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, is trying to internationalize the conflict in his country. The moment that Saudi troops advance on the Iraqi border on a large scale, the conflict will increasingly be noticed in international political circles.

And al-Maliki's message is obvious: "Attempts to pressure me will not succeed." There have been indications that the US wants al-Maliki to resign. Sunnis have also called for him to step down. Now he is leaving his country's defense to the Saudis, in effect saying that they should deal with the ISIS militants, that he isn't able to do so himself. He is saying that his forces aren't sufficient, and that he will not do it alone. He expects help from neighboring countries.

Saudi Arabia has denied supporting the Sunni insurgents in Iraq. Does the deployment of Saudi soldiers along the border now mean that the country is beyond reproach?

No, it isn't. Saudi Arabia has an ambivalent strategy when it comes to ISIS. The Saudi government itself does not directly support ISIS. But wealthy Saudi businessmen, in particular, are sending ISIS militants money. How much is unknown. And from what we have been able to determine, Arabs in other Gulf states are doing so as well. Those who support ISIS see it as a bulwark against the Shiites and the Shiite-led government in Iran.

The Saudi government is very concerned that the violence spread by ISIS militants could also be directed against Saudi Arabia. Therefore, the Saudi government's stance is somewhat split. Saudi Arabia could theoretically prevent the flow of money toward ISIS, but it does not do so - probably out of concern that such a move could lead to internal political turmoil. The government, therefore, sees ISIS as a danger, but there are rich Saudis who see in ISIS a spiritual ally against the Shiites.

Michael Lüders is a journalist, political and business consultant and author of both fiction and non-fiction books. A political scientist and scholar of Islamic studies, Lüders is also deputy chairman at the German Orient Foundation.