Syrian Army Recaptures Citadel of Ancient Palmyra From ISIS: State TV

Columns and the ancient Temple of Bel in Palmyra, Syria in 2009, which was confirmed destroyed by ISIS on September 1, 2015. The ancient city was liberated by Syrian forces on Friday. Gustau Nacarino/Reuters

Syrian government forces recaptured the old citadel of Palmyra from the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) on Friday as the ancient city nears liberation, according to Syrian state TV and a monitoring group.

The citadel overlooks the city's ancient millennia-old ruins, some that have been destroyed by the radical Islamist group since it took control of the city in May 2015 in what the United Nations cultural body, UNESCO, has called a war crime.

The seizing back of the city would be the biggest victory for President Bashar al-Assad's forces since Russia entered into the civil war, conducting airstrikes in support of the embattled Syrian leader.

Rami Abdelrahman, director of the U.K.-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, confirmed the capture of the citadel to Newsweek but said the military had not yet retaken the city.

The pro-Assad, Beirut-based Al-Mayadeen broadcast jets conducting airstrikes against ISIS positions, showing militants withdrawing from the citadel. Syrian state TV and the Al-Manar TV station of Lebanese militant group Hezbollah cited the Syrian military confirming the capture of the citadel.

The reported capture of Palmyra's citadel comes after an offensive that saw Syrian government forces just hundreds of meters from the city's center as battles continued with ISIS militants.

The group defeated the Syrian army in the city in May 2015, embarking on a campaign of destruction, systematically eradicating thousands of years of history and executing any opponents in its way, including the city's top archaeologist.

As the city nears liberation, Maamoun Abdulkarim, the Syrian director of antiquities, told Newsweek by phone from Damascus that he will cancel an impending visit to Paris to travel to Palmyra in the event of its liberation as that will be the "most important" of his life.

"I have been waiting since ten months. It was for me a disaster, a tragic situation. I will cancel my visit to Europe," he said. "My hope is to visit Palmyra to see what happened with my staff, to do an assessment and see how we can continue our action plan. It will be the most beautiful visit in my life to visit Palmyra in one or two days."

He added: "I am sure that Palmyra has been destroyed by this barbary, Daesh. This battle is cultural, it is not just for the Syrian army, it is for the international community. We cannot divide our heritage into the opposition and another for the government. We have one heritage for all the Syrian people."

The militant group has suffered a series of losses within its self-proclaimed caliphate in Syria and Iraq since it captured both Palmyra and the western Iraqi city of Ramadi in the same month in 2015. It lost Ramadi in December to Iraqi forces, the northern city of Sinjar to Kurdish forces and large areas of northern Syria to Syrian-Kurdish forces. The Iraqi military launched its first phase of the offensive to recapture Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, on Thursday.