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Recent Developments in Northwest Syria - Situation Report No. 21 - As of 20 October 2020

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COVID-19 situation in northwest Syria

  • Twenty-fold increase in confirmed cases since the last situation report.

  • 1,476 cases in Idleb area, 1,389 cases in northern Aleppo governorate.

  • Three testing labs (two new).

  • 19 CCTCs (715 beds) and eight hospitals (645 beds, 114 ICU beds and 86 ventilators).

  • More than 13% of cases are medical health workers; 7.5% other workers in health sector.

  • Northwest Syria COVID-19 monitoring dashboard available.

SITUATION OVERVIEW

Continuing hostilities: Communities in northwest Syria continue to be affected by hostilities despite the 5 March ceasefire agreement, with continued shelling largely concentrated in areas south of the M4 highway and around the M5 highway in the Idleb area. Sporadic airstrikes continue to be reported, most recently on 14 October, while 20 September saw the highest number of recorded airstrikes in a single day since the ceasefire – some 28 airstrikes in the Idleb area. According to local sources, at least two people were killed and 21 people were injured by these hostilities since the last situation report. Despite reduced airstrikes, increasing numbers of IED incidents, reports of clashes between non-state armed groups (NSAGs), and targeted attacks on civilians and humanitarian workers highlight the high level of insecurity in the Idleb and Afrin and A’zaz to Jarablus areas. Notably, on 14 September a Turkish Red Crescent (TRC) vehicle was attacked by armed men in northern Aleppo, resulting in the death of one TRC humanitarian worker and the injury of another, while on the same day at least nine civilians were killed and 19 others were injured by a vehicle-borne IED explosion in Afrin. On 6 October, a vehicle-borne IED exploded in Al Bab city and reportedly killed 21 people including four children and injured at least 80 others. Three of the people injured are NGO workers working as part of the northwest’s COVID-19 referral system. Following the explosion in Al Bab, demonstrations against the deteriorating security situation were held in Al Bab city as well as in Qabasin, Idleb city and Afrin city. In yet another incident, on 15 October two Syrian aid workers and their driver were injured, one of them critically, after the car they were travelling in from a project site in Salqin city was hit by shrapnel resulting from a drone attack on another car travelling in the area. These incidents are grave reminders of the persistent danger to life in these areas. Since 8 September, local sources reported at least 17 other incidents of IEDs, UXOs and landmines affecting civilians, with nine people reported killed, including a child and a woman, and 22 others injured, including three children.

Rapid increase in COVID-19 cases: The number of COVID-19 cases in northwest Syria increased twenty-fold since the last situation report, from 138 cases on 8 September to 2,865 cases as of 19 October. Of the current cases, 1,476 are in the Idleb area and 1,389 cases are in northern Aleppo governorate. Idleb and Al Bab sub-districts are the most affected, together accounting for some half of all confirmed cases in the northwest, drawing calls for urgent attention to these areas. Twenty-one COVID-19 associated deaths have been reported in northwest Syria, while 1,544 cases are reportedly active and 1,300 people recovered. The recent increased of confirmed cases comes alongside the more than twofold increase in testing capacity, as two additional laboratories are now active, taking the total to three in northwest Syria. One new laboratory is in Jarablus and the other is in Afrin, each with one polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machine to test for COVID19. These supplement the existing laboratory in Idleb city which has two PCR machines, and contribute to a sharp rise in daily testing capacity, now averaging of over 500 tests per day. As of 19 October, 18,076 tests have been performed. Given the crowded living conditions across northwest Syria, a significant challenge in countering COVID-19 remains the difficulty of physically isolating people. To address this, one quarantine centre is due to start operating this month. Strong emphasis is being laid on effect surge planning in hospital settings, simultaneously focused on infection control, clinical operational challenges, ICU surge capacity, triage staffing and maintenance of staff wellness through psychosocial support. This is being done through periodic assessments, supportive supervision activities and practical guidance. To increase availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) for the wider public, various inter-sector initiatives are currently being planned for the local production of reusable fabric masks, to reduce transmission risk while creating livelihood opportunities.

Weakened economy: The use of the Turkish Lira (TRY) continues to spread in northwest Syria, as the Syrian Pound (SYP) remains out of favour following its rapid devaluation and instability between June and mid-August 2020. The value of the SYP continues to slide; at 2,360 SYP per USD, its value as of 19 October is some 7.3 percent weaker than a month ago.
Vendors have, in some cases, reportedly been mandated to price goods in TRY, and a rapid market assessment by humanitarian partners has found that most vendors no longer accept SYP. With basic commodities such as fuel, bread, transport, electricity and telecommunications services now reportedly priced in TRY, people without adequate access to TRY risk being excluded from markets or facing higher prices for the same goods and services because of exchange rate disparities – further marginalising more vulnerable members of society. This reportedly includes rent for accommodation, resulting in reported isolated incidents (with an increasing trend) of evictions of households without access to TRY. The devaluation of the SYP intensifies the precarious economic situation and is worsened by the impacts of COVID-19 on communities and markets. Protection partners are observing a steady increase in adoption of harmful coping mechanisms, resulting especially in child protection and gender-based violence (GBV) violations.

Displacement and Returns: In September, some 9,700 people are estimated to have spontaneously returned to areas in northwest Syria from which they were displaced. Most people returned to Ariha, Idleb, Teftnaz and Bennsh sub-districts, while Dana, Idleb, Salqin and Maaret Tamsrin saw the most departures. This brings the total to some 234,900 returns since January 2020 – the majority of these taking place following the ceasefire agreement in March. Displacements also continue to be recorded in northwest Syria, mostly driven by economic incentives, the security situation and factors such as access to services. CCCM partners reported some 44,083 IDP movements in northwest Syria in September, with most people departing from Idleb, Ehsem and Afrin subdistricts and most new arrivals received in Afrin, Dana and Ariha sub-districts.

Winterisation priority: With winter imminent, a current priority is delivering winterisation support before the arrival of the cold weather. Nearly 1.5 million people now live in more than 1,100 camps and informal sites across northwest Syria, most of which are self-settled and lack crucial infrastructure. With the economic crisis making it more difficult for people to independently access vital supplies such as fuel for heating, humanitarian partners are stepping up efforts to ensure that people are adequately equipped to deal with the impending weather conditions. A funding gap of some US$10 million has been identified for achieving these aims. The Syria Cross-border Humanitarian Fund (SCHF) has made urgent lifesaving winterisation interventions in high-needs and underserved areas a thematic priority for its upcoming standard allocation, and humanitarian partners are calling on donors to help close the remaining gaps.

Road rehabilitation: Work to repair and widen roads has begun, funded through the SCHF. This follows the closure of the Bab Al-Salam border crossing under UNSCR 2533 in July, leaving Bab Al-Hawa the only point of entry from Turkey to northwest Syria open for shipments of UN humanitarian assistance. As a result, all UN transshipments to areas previously served via Bab Al-Salam must now travel further inside northwest Syria to reach those in need among the 1.3 million people living in northern Aleppo governorate, of whom some 800,000 are internally displaced. To facilitate this, and in advance of winter and anticipated seasonal flooding, work is being undertaken to rehabilitate the single route connecting Bab Al-Hawa to northern Aleppo and to create humanitarian lanes at the internal crossing points. In September, 845 trucks of UN humanitarian assistance were shipped via Bab Al-Hawa, compared to 176 in August and 21 in July – illustrating the increasing importance of keeping this lifeline open and accessible for millions of people in the northwest.

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