Dangerous "uphill battle" to save Syria's history

The war in Syria includes some unlikely participants. As CBS News correspondent Clarissa Ward reports, a group of modern-day "monuments men" are rushing to try and save priceless antiquities from being destroyed or stolen.

Already, every one of the Syrian archaeological sites on UNESCO's "World Heritage List" has been looted.

ISIS militants attack ancient artifacts
ISIS destroys ancient artifacts in Mosul

Syria is home to some of the oldest civilizations in the world, dating back thousands and thousands of years, but the country's rich cultural heritage has been badly damaged by four years of brutal civil war.

Satellite photos from 2011 show what the ancient city of Apamea used to look like, but now it is pockmarked with so-called robber holes; entry points for looters.

Video shows suspected soldiers from the regime of President Bashar Assad loading statues stolen from the city of Palmyra into the beds of trucks. The statues, and other invaluable artifacts like them, are the victims of Syria's civil war that a loose network of archaeologists is rushing to try and save.

Syrian-British archaeologist Dr. Amr al-Azm is with Shawnee State University in Ohio. When he saw his country's precious heritage being decimated in the war, he and former colleagues and students began a race to record the destruction, and to prevent the theft.

"Some of them were once museum curators, archaeologists who feel passionate about their own culture, their own history, and their own country, and they feel it is part of their duty, their responsibility to protect this cultural heritage," al-Azm told Ward.

Parallels to the American soldiers who salvaged European art from the Nazis during World War II notwithstanding, al-Azm and his compatriots are armed only with cell phone cameras, notepads, and sandbags to protect the fragile mosaics and artifacts that make up Syria's cultural wealth.

They routinely brave regime shells and snipers, and travel through dangerous ground held by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Al-Azm says selling antiquities on the black market has become a major money-maker for the militants.

He said ISIS has even attempted to officiate the illegal practice upon realizing "how lucrative this particular trade is."

At first, the terror group would simply show up and pick over antiquities with their own men, but they moved on, "not just contracting their own crews, but hiring their own archaeologists, and then providing them a license. It's called the 'archaeology office.'"

But unlike the scientists who work for museums and recognized governments, the ISIS archaeologists' role is essentially "loot, assess, price, sell... ISIS is now involved in every level of the process," al-Azm said.

Inside the Syrian War: Bearing witness

When shelling damaged a museum in his hometown, volunteer Ayman Inabu led a team to protect its invaluable contents. He believes the rescue mission was essential not just for his own nation, but for the entire world.

"The Syrian heritage is one that belongs to the whole of humanity, not just Syrians," he told Ward. "It's the duty of all Syrians to preserve it." But with ISIS increasing its looting and the regime's ongoing bombardment, there's a limit to what can be done.

"We are really struggling on an uphill battle here. With the scale of the damage that's being done, we're not winning, I can tell you that," al-Azm conceded. So why bother?

"Because it's better than doing nothing," he said. "And I'll tell you another thing... one day this conflict will end. One day in the years to come, my daughters will ask me the question, you know. 'What did you do in the war? What did you do to save something that was very important?' And I would be ashamed to say to them that I did nothing."

Many of the artifacts looted by ISIS and other groups are sold to middlemen and small-time dealers in Lebanon and Turkey, but those dealers may sit on them for up to a decade before trying to sell them onto the global art market, making the stolen goods that much tougher to track.