Although campaign junkies wouldn’t know it, one of the biggest news developments of the day is being badly mis-reported by the cable news networks they followed obsessively: The Islamic State in the Levant (ISIL – also commonly known as ISIS or just IS) is losing in the Levant – namely, in Syria and in Iraq.
With presidential candidates wanting to forgo the Geneva Convention, carpet bomb civilians and generally try to out-tough each other in debate after debate, you’d think IS is conquering the world like Alexander the Great, or running a blitzkrieg through central Europe. But producers and executives trying to capture eight-second attention spans seem incapable of getting the story right. In fact, the only reliable American reporting on IS’ remarkably fast fade is coming from major U.S. newspapers.
Just a year and a half ago, IS was indeed frighteningly on the rise. It controlled an area the size of Great Britain, reaching from Syria into Iraq to Tikrit. The group captured the second-largest city in Iraq – Mosul – after the Iraqi military refused to fight. It created a new arena for terror on social media, posting videos of brutal executions. Mass executions of Christians in Libya, captured on video, quickly followed, and shocked those who failed to realize the reach of the group or its brutality.
Adding to the sense of alarm: evidence that IS was rewriting the terrorism rule book Western officials thought they’d figured out. Indeed, last year The New York Review of Books published a history of IS by “Anonymous” – identified as a high-ranking official in a Western government. The main theme: The group defied convention. Nearly every move it made was wrong according to the existing framework of success for terror groups and the West had no explanation for its existence, let alone its success and how to stop it.
Circumstances are different now. The Islamic State has lost most of its major territory in Iraq. An Iraqi military division – trained by the U.S – ran IS out of the city of Tikrit in a day and a half. Its last major stronghold outside of rural territory is Mosul, but local news service Rudaw has reported that Sunni militia, the Kurdish and Iraqi presidents, and U.S. envoy Brett McGurk are planning to retake Mosul, in what is expected to be one of the bloodiest battles in the region’s history of the region. Already, the U.S. military has been operating within 75 miles of Mosul. It seems the bully has finally taken a punch to the face.
Yet when the IS issue is discussed on television – whether by pundits, politicians or candidates – it’s within the framework of two years ago, when the group was flooding Iraq. This alarmism seems to be justified by the group’s dramatically stepped up attacks outside the Middle East – in Paris, Brussels, and San Bernardino, California. But paradoxically, IS’ strikes outside its home region reflect its worsening predicament in Iraq and Syria, not its strength, and cable’s failure to present this context shows the costs of coverage lacking context or even analysis with minimal depth.
The contrast with the major dailies is especially revealing. Take The Wall Street Journal’s coverage of the battle in the Levant. When the Free Syrian Army took Palmyra last week, the Journal had the story a day or two later. The New York Times, and Fareed Zakaria’s Sunday morning GPS CNN show are also feature reporting with detail and solid judgment.
Why has national TV news been portraying the Islamic State with all the sloppiness of local TV news discussing the latest school board meeting? In all likelihood, because reporting complexity would make the standard four-panelist, five-minute pundit segments much difficult for audiences to follow. How could you keep typical viewers from flipping the dial after years of feeding them little but the latest cheap shot or salvo aimed at a rival political operative?
Debates could suffer, too. Since the audiences generally haven’t been informed about the current facts on the ground, on-target questions would be confusing. And the candidates themselves, as well as ratings-starved networks, would lose valuable opportunities to make those showy, attention-grabbing, tough-sounding “crank up the Enola Gay” quotes that end up on Vines and Facebook.
What exactly should the cable networks in particularly be covering? In particular, they need to do a much better job understanding and explaining IS’ attraction to its fighters and supporters.
During the group’s heyday a year ago, IS was indeed recruiting in droves. Now it’s failing to find new followers as it takes major losses and discovers fighting is a bit tougher when you aren’t rolling into cities unimpeded.
Thomas Friedman of The New York Times put it best – if you are a 20-year-old man in Syria or Iraq, don’t have a wife or job; IS can provide those. But circumstances have changed. IS is facing actual opposition, meaning there’s a good chance of dying from a bullet wound or a gravity bomb. IS, moreover, was paying its fighters with oil revenues, but these started drying up substantially right after its rigs were bombed by allied airstrikes.
In addition, one major reason for IS’ success despite its brutality and other convention-defying tactics has been its religious message. That is, IS is as much an apocalyptic cult as much as a radical Islamist terror group. It cites a belief that a confrontation with the West in Syria would bring about the end of the world. This is why the group uses social media as a means to keep itself in the news and to try to drive the U.S. into a conflict in Iraq: a final round with the West on Islam’s home soil would lend credibility to its vision of the end times and ostensibly supercharge recruiting.
But today, the group is engaged in heavy combat, its organization and rank and file both taking heavy losses. But the Western military role in Middle East combat has been relatively light – especially on the ground. So those end-of-the-world predictions are looking ever dicier.
In addition, IS has been losing much of the ground it had gained in Syria as well as in Iraq. The Kurds pushed IS across the Euphrates three weeks ago, forcing them into their home territory of Aleppo. Six months ago this accomplishment would have been unimaginable. Last week the Free Syrian Army defeated IS in Palmyra, the ancient Roman/Greco city.
Indeed, this brings us to another reason why IS’ recent loss of traction isn’t being covered: the unholy alliance arrayed against it. Hezbollah, Syrian dictator Bashir Al-Assad (who was Public Enemy No. 1 three years ago ahead of IS and all other radicals before him), the Free Syrian Army, the Russians, the Turks, the Kurds, (maybe some Al Qaeda elements), the Iranians – all these forces have had a part in pushing IS back and handing it defeat after defeat even as U.S.-aided Iraqi forces are beating the group in Iraq. How does one tell that tale in a 30-second news byte?
But complexity can never excuse shoddy reporting – in particular when it’s obscuring the most important IS-related development of all: IS isn’t attacking Brussels and Paris for its enjoyment but for survival, trying to move the battlefront, trying to take the focus from the Levant. Expect IS also to become more active in Libya, where it has created a new franchise, for lack of a better word. This isn’t the darkening shadow of conquest we’re seeing, however, but the desperate lashing out of a cornered animal.
B.J. Bethel is an Ohio-based journalist who has covered politics, government, the environment, and sports for over a decade.