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Recent Developments in Northwest Syria - Situation Report No. 18 - As of 25 July 2020

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Syria
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OCHA
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Highlights
• 23 people with COVID-19 have been identified in northwest Syria. Contact tracing has been activated and efforts continue to mitigate the spread of the virus and raise awareness about COVID-19 risks and precautions.
• Increased hostilities in the Idleb area and northern Aleppo were reported, including shelling, airstrikes, and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). At least 22 people were killed and 126 injured due to IEDs from 2-19 July, most of these in a single incident in Saju on 19 July.
• Major humanitarian needs persist across all sectors while the vulnerability of the people is exacerbated by the devaluation of the Syrian Pound and the impact of COVID-19. Increasing protection issues continue to be reported, including gender-based violence such as early marriages, short-term marriages, forced abortions and domestic violence.

Situation Overview

The humanitarian situation for the 4.1 million people living in northwest Syria remains dire. The impacts of displacement, military operations, security hazards and nine years of conflict are increasingly exacerbated by the rapid devaluation of the Syrian Pound (SYP) and the COVID-19 pandemic. In an area where some 2.8 million people already rely on humanitarian assistance to meet their basic needs such as food, water, shelter, healthcare and education, the impact of these recent developments is entrenching the existing humanitarian needs and creating new ones.

As of 25 July, 23 people with COVID-19 have been identified in northwest Syria, with the first positive result recorded in Bab Al-Hawa on 9 July. Of these cases, some are in the Idleb area while the remaining are in northern Aleppo governorate. Since 9 July, five patients have recovered while other cases remain active. Contact tracing is ongoing for all positive cases and health partners are focusing on interrupting virus transmissions and reducing secondary infections. As of 24 July, almost 3,000 samples had been tested for COVID-19. Precautions against a potential spread of the virus have been scaled up in response to the identified cases, including restrictions on movements, gatherings, commercial activities, and in-person education services. These measures are crucial to contain transmissions of COVID-19, though they may intensify humanitarian need by complicating humanitarian response and through their impacts on local markets, income-generating opportunities and vital services. A total of 159 hospitals and primary health centres (PHC) have been equipped with COVID19 triage systems, and four community-based treatment centres (CCTC) have been operationalised to treat patients with mild-to-moderate cases of COVID-19. Humanitarian actors continue to adapt how they work in order to assist people in need while minimising transmission risks for themselves and local communities, suspending services only where no safe solution is available.

Another worrying trend affecting civilians is the increased levels of hostilities reported in northwest Syria in the last two weeks. On 14 July, airstrikes were reported in northwest Syria for the first time in more than three weeks, affecting several areas south of the M4 highway in Idleb governorate. On the following day, bombardment reportedly affected Al Bab town in northern Aleppo governorate. In addition, more frequent instances of shelling along the frontlines in southern Idleb, northern Hama, western Aleppo and Lattakia governorates continue to be reported. From 2 July to 20 July 2020, the Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) verified that five civilians were killed including 2 boys and 24 civilians were injured including 6 women and 7 boys as a result of hostilities. Moreover, on 14 July, a primary healthcare and a medical supplies warehouse in Ariha were reportedly damaged following bombardment in the Idleb area. The overall security situation remains concerning, including in areas away from the frontlines, as escalations in tensions and clashes between NSAGs continued to be reported in recent weeks, both in the Idleb area and northern Aleppo governorate.

The safety of civilians in northwest Syria is further undermined by the enduring prevalence of explosive hazards. In particular, improvised explosive device (IED) attacks continue to threaten the lives of both civilians and humanitarian workers. Between 2 and 19 July, OHCHR has verified at least 15 incidents including nine improvised explosive device (IED) and six explosive remnant of war incidents in northwest Syria and the Tell Abiad – Ras Al-Ain area. At least 22 civilians were killed including 2 women and 3 boys and 126 civilians were wounded including 14 women, 31 boys, and 4 girls. One IED incident in the vicinity of a bakery in Tell Abiad city on 7 July resulted in the death of six civilians, including two children and one woman, and injured at least 14 people. On 19 July, at least eight people including four civilian men were killed and 79 other people including four civilian women and nine boys were injured as a result of what was reported to be a vehicle-borne IED that detonated in the village of Saju near the city of A’zaz in northern rural Aleppo. Two people who have been killed by the explosion are reportedly humanitarian workers.

The Syrian Pound (SYP) in informal markets in northwest Syria is some 315 percent weaker than a year earlier. The SYP lost nearly half its value at the beginning of May 2020, when the exchange rate exceeded 1,300 SYP/USD for the first time ever. This rapid devaluation of the SYP and wide fluctuation range exacerbates the precarious situation as purchasing power rapidly erodes. According to market monitoring by an NGO partner, the cost of the survival minimum expenditure basket (SMEB) was 224,385 SYP in June 2020, some 68 percent higher than one month earlier. The SMEB in northwest Syria increased more than threefold in a little more than a year with the cost of the SMEB recorded at 67,599 SYP in May 2019. Across the Idleb and Afrin and A’zaz to Jarablus areas of northwest Syria, Turkish Lira and USD are being used as alternative currencies to mitigate against market volatility. People without adequate access to these currencies remain more exposed to market shocks and may face higher prices for the same goods and services due to exchange rate disparities – further marginalising the already poor and vulnerable members of society.

The impacts of the economic downturn compound those of displacements, which continue to be a key driver of humanitarian needs. Some 2.7 million people are displaced in northwest Syria. Most recently, of the 960,000 IDPs who were displaced between December 2019 and March 2020, some 756,000 people are estimated to remain displaced. According to a UN partner, some 204,000 spontaneous returns were recorded in northwest Syria since January 2020, including nearly 26,000 people who returned to their areas of origin in June. Most of these returns were to areas around the M4 and west of the M5 in the southern and eastern Idleb area. According to a recent assessment in communities where significant numbers of returns have been reported, families struggle more to access humanitarian assistance while enduring the impact of economic hardship, a volatile security situation, and heavily damaged infrastructure resulting from conflict. For instance, the prevalence of destroyed shelters in these communities of return is reported to be extremely high, at 72% of communities assessed compared to 27% across northwest Syria. While this leads to overcrowding in available shelters, repairs to damaged buildings are reportedly complicated by the high prices of materials and services as well as the volatile security environment. Families in 75% of the communities are reportedly unable to afford essential food items while half of the communities do not have sufficient access to water as a result of damage to public infrastructure or high prices of water trucking. Moreover, the assessment also concludes that there are limited differences between the communities of return along the frontlines and northwest Syria as a whole, reiterating that there are also extreme needs in other locations. As the weather gets hotter, needs related to coping with the heat and exposure to the sun are increasing, such as for weather-appropriate shelter, access to water, suitable food storage solutions, and protection from animals such as scorpions and snakes, which emerge during this season.

Protection issues are reportedly on the rise as the situation for people in northwest Syria grows more desperate, with increasing psychosocial stress, poverty and lack of employment opportunities compounded by the effects of COVID-19 related limitations. Significant increases in different types of gender-based violence (GBV) are being reported, particularly incidences of domestic violence such as marital rape, physical and emotional violence and denial of resources, with girls and women with disabilities and pregnant women especially vulnerable. As the economic downturn increasingly impedes the ability of households to meet their basic needs, financially motivated negative coping mechanisms are increasingly being adopted, including child labour, forced prostitution, forced abortions and early and forced marriages.

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs: To learn more about OCHA's activities, please visit https://www.unocha.org/.