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Recent Developments in Northwest Syria - Situation Report No. 17 - As of 13 July 2020

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HIGHLIGHTS

• The UN Security Council Resolution enabling cross-border UN assistance from Turkey into Syria was renewed on 11 July, keeping the Bab Al-Hawa border crossing open for another 12 months. The Bab Al-Salam crossing was removed.

• Four COVID-19 cases have been identified in northwest Syria. Contact tracing has been activated and efforts continue to mitigate the spread of cases and raise awareness about COVID-19 risks and precautions.

• Vulnerability is rising as people in northwest Syria increasingly struggle to meet their own needs.
Within one month and largely due to the devaluation of the Syrian Pound, the cost of the survival minimum expenditure basket (SMEB) increased by 68 percent.

• Increasing protection issues are being reported, due to explosive hazards and tensions between armed groups, as well as gender-based violence such as early marriages, short-term marriages, forced abortions and domestic violence.

SITUATION OVERVIEW

People living in northwest Syria continue to face dire living conditions. Existing struggles arising from the impacts of displacements, military operations, security hazards and the protracted conflict are increasingly compounded by the destabilisation 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 basic needs such as food, water, shelter, healthcare and education, the volatility of the economy is further undermining people’s resilience, potentially impacting all 4.1 million people living in the northwest.

Four cases of COVID-19 have been identified in northwest Syria, with the first positive result recorded in Bab Al-Hawa on 9 July. Of the four cases, two are in the Idleb area and two in northern Aleppo governorate, and all four patients are health professionals. Contact tracing was activated upon the return of the first positive result from the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test on 9 July. People who had encountered these patients in recent weeks are being advised to isolate themselves and be alert to potential symptoms, while all contacts exhibiting symptoms are being tested for COVID-19. As of 12 July, more than 2,500 samples had been PCR tested for COVID-19. Humanitarian and health partners are continuing their efforts to mitigate against the spread of the pandemic. Precautions against a potential spread of the virus have been scaled up in response to the identified cases, including restrictions on movements, gatherings and commercial activities as well as inperson education services. These measures are crucial to contain transmissions of COVID-19, though they may intensify humanitarian need through their impacts on local markets, income-generating opportunities and vital services while complicating humanitarian response. At least seven hospitals in the Idleb area reportedly suspended routine clinical work and surgeries for at least one week on 10 July, in an effort to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in medical settings. 159 hospitals and primary health centres (PHC) have been equipped with COVID-19 triage systems, and five 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.
Low levels of hostilities continue to be reported in northwest Syria. No airstrikes have been reported since the last situation report on 26 June, and shelling has primarily affected communities in the vicinity of the frontlines south of the M4 highway, in southern Idleb, northern Hama and northern Lattakia governorates. The overall security situation remains concerning, including in areas away from the frontlines, as tensions and clashes involving non-state armed groups (NSAGs) encroach on civilian lives. Escalations in clashes between NSAGs have been reported in recent weeks, including in Idleb city and its western countryside where inter-NSAG violence since mid-June resulted in movement restrictions, the temporary closure of some roads, and civilian casualties. The safety of civilians in northwest Syria is further undermined by the enduring prevalence of explosive hazards. At least six improvised explosive device (IED) and explosive remnant of war (ERW) incidents were reported in the last two weeks, killing at least four people, including two children, and injuring at least one child and one woman, according to local sources. Several other IEDs were reportedly discovered and neutralised during the same period.

Since 26 June, the value of the SYP in informal markets in northwest Syria has fluctuated between around 2,300 SYP/USD and 2,600 SYP/USD. While lower than the historical high of 3,200 SYP/USD reached on 8 June, this is nevertheless some 315 percent weaker than a year earlier, and 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 underscores the precarious situation faced by people in northwest Syria, whose purchasing power had rapidly eroded and who are no longer able to reliably depend on the value of their assets or confidently undertake financial commitments such as loans or service contracts. 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.

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. This comes after the cost of the SMEB in northwest Syria already doubled from 67,599 SYP in May 2019 to 135,280 SYP in May 2020. Market shortages of key supplies including food resulting from the economic downturn is having a devastating impact on people already struggling to live. As of May, nearly three in every 10 children in northwest Syria under the age of five was suffering from stunting due to chronic malnutrition. Humanitarian activities are also being impeded, as increased prices and reduced availability of goods in local markets diminish partners’ capacity to procure supplies, while increased fuel costs inhibit distributions and programme delivery, including for key activities such as water trucking.

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, of whom some 780,000 people were displaced in the three months since early December 2019. 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. Longer term needs of the civilian population continue to grow, including for health, nutrition and education services, even as more acute humanitarian needs persist and are at risk of increasing as deterioration of the SYP diminishes people’s ability to meet their own needs. 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. On 6 July, local sources reported more than 90 incidents of food poisoning in an informal IDP camp in Haranbush in Idleb governorate, allegedly due to inadequate food storage solutions.

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. The GBV subcluster is also reporting families marrying off their daughters repeatedly for short periods of time in exchange for money.

In the first six months of 2020, 8,365 trucks of UN humanitarian assistance were delivered through these crossings, providing food security and livelihoods (FSL), non-food items (NFI), water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), shelter, health, education and nutrition assistance to support people in northwest Syria. On 11 July, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2533, extending cross-border UN assistance from Turkey to northwest Syria through the Bab Al-Hawa border crossing for another 12 months, and ensuring that humanitarian support can continue to reach millions of people living in parts of the northwest accessible via this crossing. UNSCR 2533 retains only one of two crossings authorised under the preceding UNSCR 2504, which expired on 10 July. The Bab Al-Salam border crossing is now closed for UN transshipments.

This comes after 397 trucks of UN humanitarian assistance entered northwest Syria via Bab Al-Salam in June 2020 – the highest number to traverse this crossing in a single month since the start of the cross-border mechanism in 2014.

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