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Recent Developments in Northwest Syria - Situation Report No. 19 - As of 21 August 2020

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Highlights

• 59 people tested positive for COVID-19 in northwest Syria as of 20 August. Response efforts focus on contact tracing, containing the spread of the virus and raising awareness about COVID-19 risks and precautions.

• Increasing hostilities continue to be reported in the Idleb area and northern Aleppo, especially in locations south of the M4 highway. Explosive hazards and tensions between armed groups further undermine the security situation and imperil civilians’ lives.

• COVID-19 and economic deterioration compound existing humanitarian needs across all sectors in all parts of northwest Syria.

Situation Overview

The fragile humanitarian situation of the 4.1 million people living in northwest Syria continues to be exacerbated by the impacts of the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, volatile economic situation, insecurity and explosive hazards. After nearly a decade of conflict marked by violence, military operations, multiple displacements and economic shocks across northwest Syria, 2.8 million people rely on humanitarian assistance to meet their basic needs including shelter, health, food and water.

Of the 4,845 tests carried as of 21 August, 59 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in northwest Syria. 46 patients have reportedly recovered – eight in Idleb and 14 in Harim districts in Idleb governorate, and 15 in Al Bab, one in Jarablus one in Afrin and seven in A’zaz districts in northern Aleppo governorate. Preliminary reports are being verified of one death due to COVID-19 in northwest Syria on 20 August There are 13 active COVID-19 cases in the Idleb area and northern Aleppo governorate. Most of the patients identified presented with mild symptoms, while others were asymptomatic. As of 21 August, seven isolation hospitals were active in northwest Syria and three new treatment centres (called COVID-19 Community Treatment Centres, or CCTCs) in Atareb, Daret Azza and Atmeh became operational, bringing the total number of active CCTCs to eight. Efforts remain concentrated on contact tracing, interrupting virus transmissions and reducing secondary infections. Health partners continue to raise awareness about COVID-19 precautions among local communities and other stakeholders, emphasising practices to prevent transmissions including hygiene practices, self-isolation and physical distancing. Further transmission risk mitigation measures implemented since the identification of the first case on 9 July include limits on movements, markets, gatherings and commercial activities. In terms of humanitarian assistance, precautions enacted by humanitarian actors prior to the identification of COVID-19 cases in northwest Syria continue to be implemented and strengthened, to safeguard both staff and local communities. Work is ongoing to intensify interventions to strengthen infection prevention and control at health facilities as means to protect healthcare workers and prevent transmission from healthcare service delivery points, which is of high priority.

Increased levels of military hostilities were observed in northwest Syria, particularly in the vicinity of frontlines in the Idleb area and in areas south of the M4 highway, with more frequent shelling reported since early July. On 18 August, several airstrikes were reported near Sheikh Bahr and Haranbush towns in Idleb governorate. While no injuries to civilians have been reported as a result of these airstrikes, several IDP settlements situated in proximity of the locations were impacted near Haranbush town. In addition to these hostilities, tensions involving non-state armed groups continue to be reported, further undermining the security situation. Concerns about the safety of civilians and humanitarian operations are deepened by incidents involving explosive hazards in northwest Syria. From 7 to 21 August, local sources reported some ten incidents in the Idleb and northern Aleppo areas, involving 5 improvised explosive devices (IED), one explosive remnant of war (ERW) and four landmines, in which seven people including two children were reportedly killed and 13 people including three children were reportedly injured. Several other IED and ERW were reportedly dismantled over the same period.
The value of the Syrian Pound (SYP) in informal markets in northwest Syria fluctuated around 2,100 SYP per US Dollar for most of the last two weeks. As a result of the recent instability of the value of SYP and rapid devaluation, the Turkish Lira (TRY) has been increasingly used as a transactional currency in northwest Syria, with basic commodities such as fuel, bread, transport and telecommunications services now priced in TRY. People without adequate access to currencies in use risk being excluded from markets or facing higher prices for the same goods and services because of exchange rate disparities – further marginalising the more vulnerable members of society. Moreover, for humanitarian programmes inside northwest Syria, preservation of the value of assistance becomes more challenging due to fluctuating exchange rates and multiple currency conversions. The devaluation of the SYP intensifies the precarious economic situation and is worsened by the impacts of COVID-19. According to a survey by a UN partner, income loss, price increases, loss of humanitarian assistance and forced business closures were communities’ main concerns about the economic impact of COVID-19 in northwest Syria. 36 percent of community focal points reported that living conditions for their communities worsened since the start of the pandemic.
These circumstances come atop widespread humanitarian need driven by hostilities and displacement, with northwest Syria hosting some 2.7 million displaced people. 220,000 people were recorded to have returned to their homes or previous places of displacement by a UN partner between January and July 2020, mostly to areas around the M4 and west of the M5 highway in the southern and eastern Idleb area – areas that have seen an increase in hostilities in recent weeks.

Findings from an assessment by an NGO found that in 72 percent of communities assessed, prevalence of destroyed shelters were reported, compared to 27 percent across northwest Syria, driving overcrowding in available shelters and illustrating the difficult conditions facing returnees. Families in 75 percent of communities in these areas reportedly cannot afford essential food items, and half of the communities have insufficient access to water. In the context of the COVID-19 outbreak, these conditions increase the risk of transmission among this highly vulnerable population. The dire conditions in these areas parallel the extreme needs prevalent across other parts of the northwest, where deteriorating circumstances continue to increase reliance on humanitarian assistance and diminish positive coping strategies. Concerns about weather conditions remain prominent. Needs related to coping with heat and sun exposure are presently increasing, and winter preparation efforts, soon to commence, are expected to further strain people’s finances, especially in light of rising costs.

In this context, humanitarian partners are working to meet the immense needs of people in northwest Syria while adapting to the closure of the Bab Al-Salam border crossing for UN transshipments under UN Security Council Resolution 2533.

Efforts are ongoing to increase capacity at the one remaining point of entry for UN humanitarian assistance to northwest Syria, at Bab Al-Hawa, and to address new costs and mitigate risks and challenges associated with the longer distances that need to be travelled within northwest Syria in order to reach people in areas previously served via Bab Al-Salama.

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