Is the tide turning against ISIS? How can we figure it out?

Depending on your news sources (and I’m using the term loosely), you may have noticed a downturn in coverage of the Islamic State.

Just a week ago, the group known as ISIS or ISIL seemed to be taking over the entire Middle East. Within days, the news shifted that the self-styled caliphate might be falling apart.

The first frightening reports were that the terrorist group Boko Haram, based in Nigeria, has thrown in its lot with ISIS. This “proved” that ISIS was growing in power, taking over an increasing stretch of land, and there was a weekend of scary headlines, with maps in bright colors and thick arrows pointing outward. ISIS was expanding, we were told.

Days later, however, the Washington Post ran a story that ISIS was “fraying from within.”

“Reports of rising tensions between foreign and local fighters, aggressive and increasingly unsuccessful attempts to recruit local citizens for the front lines, and a growing incidence of guerrilla attacks against Islamic State targets suggest the militants are struggling to sustain their carefully cultivated image as a fearsome fighting force drawing Muslims together under the umbrella of a utopian Islamic state,” the story said.

The Boko Haram threat may be turning out to be a threat in name only. A column in The Guardian called Boko Haram’s claim “a superficial propaganda coup.” After all, within the last few weeks, Nigerian government forces finally started to claim an upper hand against Boko Haram. “Now military forces from Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger have been taking back towns lost to Boko Haram,” said a report from the BBC.

All news sources seem to be in agreement about the fading influence of Boko Haram — except, of course, Fox “News,” which had a story claiming that the new alignment gives Boko Haram “unprecedented power, resources, and reach.”

What about other ISIS news? Some reports say that Iraqi fighters — no doubt different from the ones who famously cut and ran after first dumping their U.S.-supplied weapons at the first threat from ISIS — are making gains near Tikrit and making plans to retake Mosul. Kurdish Peshmerga fighters also are said to have pushed ISIS forces back in Kirkuk.

Even there, however, the news is muddled. On the same day, a headline from USA Today claimed that ISIS is near collapse in Tikrit. A New York Times story says that ISIS is maintaining a hold in Tikrit as the Iraqi forces are on pause. A story from Al Jazeera asks, “Can ISIL be defeated in Tikrit?” and calls victory there crucial. The story also points out that much of the military support for the Iraqi forces is coming from Iran and being run by Shi’ite militias.

And to top it all off, Juan Cole, the Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan and a Middle East expert, says in a new post that the Sunni/Shi’ite divide could make the any success in Tikrit a “Pyrrric victory.”

So when reporters can’t get in close — no embedded journalists with these forces — I guess you can take your pick which story to believe.

Part of the shift in coverage away from ISIS also may be due to Republicans’ emphasis that Iran now is the biggest threat in the region. Nothing has changed there, of course. Iran is the same country it was months ago. But if the ISIS threat is, indeed, lessening, the GOP needs a new bogeyman to scare people.

So 47 GOP senators signed an ill-considered letter insisting that Iranian leaders should disregard any agreement that might be worked out between Iran and the United States. Of course, the talks going on in Switzerland about Iran’s nuclear program involve several other countries, too, but details apparently aren’t important to the 47 traitors “patriots” in the Senate.

After news of the letter broke, some Republican senators tried to backtrack in several laughable ways. Sen. John McCain (R, Ariz), claimed that senators were trying to get out of town ahead of a coming snowstorm. Sen. Rand Paul (R, Ky.) claimed that he signed the letter designed to sabotage negotiations between Iran and other diplomats to “strengthen President Obama’s hand.” Talk about unclear on the concept.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R, Ark.), who wrote the original bit of tomfoolery, says he has “no regrets” about the letter. After all, he said ominously on CBS’ Face the Nation, the Iranian threat is serious because “They already control Tehran.” The geographically challenged senator apparently is under the impression that governments should not be in charge of their own capitals. Perhaps he thinks Mississippi or Louisiana should be in charge of Arkansas’ capital of Little Rock.

I recently attended a two-part series on Islam and ISIS taught by a professor of Islamic studies. During a Q&A session, I asked him the best way to get news from the region, since U.S. news coverage has been so shallow and sensationalistic, especially from cable news channels.

“The only way to really understand it,” he said, “is to go there yourself.”

That probably won’t be happening anytime soon, if ever, for me or for millions of Americans. So we’ll have to muddle through coverage of ISIS and the Middle East the best we can.

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