A graphic illustration of Western wishful thinking about the decline of Islamic State (IS) is a well-publicised map issued by the Pentagon to prove that the self-declared caliphate has lost 25 per cent of its territory since its big advances last year.
Unfortunately for the Pentagon, sharp-eyed American journalists soon noticed something strange about its map identifying areas of IS strength. While it shows towns and villages where IS fighters have lost control around Baghdad, it simply omits western Syria where they have been advancing in and around Damascus.
The Pentagon displayed some embarrassment about its dodgy map, but it largely succeeded in its purpose of convincing people that IS is in retreat. Many news outlets across the world republished the map as evidence of the success of air strikes by the United States and its allies in support of the Iraqi army and Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria. The capture of Tikrit after a month-long siege is cited as a further sign that a re-energised Iraqi state is winning and one day in the not too distant future will be able to recapture Mosul in the north and Anbar province in the west.
How much of this comforting news is true? Recall that the loss or retention of territory is not a good measure of a force such as IS using quasi-guerrilla tactics. Good news from the point of view of Baghdad is that its forces finally retook the small city of Tikrit, though its recapture was primarily the work of 20,000 Shia militia and not the Iraqi army, which only had some 3,000 soldiers involved in the battle. It was not a fight to the finish and General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said IS only committed a few hundred fighters to holding the city.