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Recent Developments in Northwest Syria - Situation Report No. 26 - As of 26 March 2021

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HIGHLIGHTS

• Bombardment on 21 March impacted a hospital, killing seven and injuring 14. It also affected areas close to IDP camps in the Qah area and the Bab Al Hawa border crossing, reportedly killing three civilians, destroyed trucks used to carry humanitarian supplies and relief items for at least 25,000 people, damaged NGO warehouses and offices, and caused the suspension of a variety of humanitarian operations.

• A humanitarian worker was killed on 18 March when caught in the crossfire of an altercation between armed actors.

• The Syrian Pound devaluated significantly during the reporting period, with new historical lows of 4,760 SYP/USD reached on 17 March.

• Funding gaps in water and sanitation services, which have been ongoing for five months, affecting some 3 million people. Further gaps are expected to compound with the existing gaps in the upcoming months.

SITUATION OVERVIEW

Ongoing hostilities: People continue to endure conflict across northwest Syria. On 21 March, airstrikes and bombardment affected the Sarmada area not far from the Bab Al Hawa border crossing with Turkey, which are inhabited by a large number of civilians (particularly IDP camps) and are also a main centre for many NGOs and their warehouses. These airstrikes affected a logistics centre near the Bab Al-Hawa crossing and two gas facilities. Bombardment also affected the Qah area in northern Idelb. Airstrikes also hit Kafr Shalaya in southern Idleb. On 22 March, several missiles impacted Sarmada again, mainly impacting a fuel market. Shelling also continued to occur in frontline areas on a daily basis.

On the same day, missiles impacted a hospital run by an NGO in the city of Atareb in the western countryside of Aleppo. The NGO reports that seven patients were killed (including five men and two children) and that 14 people were injured (including medical staff and five women). The hospital is out of service and had been providing an average of 3,650 outpatient medical services per month, and 177 general, orthopedic, and urologic surgeries each month, along with emergency and obstetrics services.

The bombardment that affected the Qah area on 21 March also occurred in an area with IDP camps. Local sources reported that two civilians were killed in these incidents. In the airstrikes and bombardment that impacted the Sarmada area on the same day, one civilian was killed, according to local sources. The bombardment of civilian areas that house a large number of IDP camps is of grave concern.

The shelling and airstrikes hit close to the Bab Al Hawa border crossing, which has a high density of IDP camps and is the main route to transport humanitarian supplies into Idleb, and for the UN to northern Aleppo. The attacks on 21 March led to losses of critical supplies by humanitarian organizations and the suspension of aid deliveries. This comes at a time where the needs in northwest Syria have never been higher and funding is already constrained. Specific impacts to the humanitarian operation included:

• 64 trucks were partially damaged and another four completely destroyed by the strikes on a private logistics hub in Sarmada. While the vehicles were privately owned, they belonged to the main company used for UN transshipments. There was no humanitarian cargo on board at the time of the strike.

• Airstrikes near an NGO warehouse resulted in fires that reportedly destroyed relief items intended for some 25,000 people, including NFI kits, hygiene kits, kitchen sets, and soap.

• At least five NGOs temporarily suspended operations, including WASH and FSL distributions and work at medical centres.

• A building housing several NGO offices sustained slight damage, as well as two warehouses, a medical centre, and the office of another humanitarian organization.

In an unrelated incident to the above developments, local sources reported that one humanitarian worker was killed, and five civilians injured (including one woman) when they were caught in the crossfire of a conflict between armed individuals in Idleb Governorate on 18 March.

Overall, the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) verified that from 24 February to 23 March, at least 16 civilians were killed (including one woman and four children) and at least 70 civilians were injured (including four women and six children) as a result of the shelling and airstrikes in northwest Syria. In addition to these hostilities, the prevalence of explosive hazards continue to take a toll on civilian lives. Four incidents of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and four incidents of explosive remnants of war (ERW) in northwest Syria resulted in civilian casualties, with at least 11 civilians killed (including one woman and four children) and 13 civilians injured (including two women and three children). Many more IEDs and ERWs were also reported within communities and public spaces and later neutralised.

COVID-19: According to WHO, the number of new confirmed COVID-19 cases in northwest Syria continued to decline during the reporting period. 105,298 tests have been conducted to date, with 21,282 cases confirmed as of 26 March – 11,576 cases in the Idleb area and 9,706 in northern Aleppo governorate. A total of 637 COVID-19 associated deaths have been reported to date with an overall fatality rate of 3 percent in northwest Syria. The percentage of current cases among medical healthcare workers are 7.3 percent, encompassing nurses, doctors and midwives, while a further 5.3 percent are auxiliary workers in the health sector. Some 10.5 percent of all COVID-19 cases are in IDP camps.

Critical funding gaps remain in the COVID-19 response and risk disrupting vital response services, in particular the referral system for patient transportation, manning points of entry with Infection Prevention Control and screening measures, and essential health services such as hospitals and primary health centres across the northwest in the coming months. Ongoing prioritization exercises aim to maintain the minimum operational activities required to minimize transmission rates. Since the last Situation Report, one additional COVID-19 Community-based Treatment Centre (CCTC) was opened in the city of Al Bab. As of 26 March, there were 25 active CCTCs (with 1,111 beds) in northwest Syria along with 12 hospitals that treat COVID-19 (with 234 intensive care unit (ICU) beds and 926 regular beds).

Further planning for a vaccination roll-out plan remains ongoing. The initial request to secure vaccines for some 20 percent of the population (855,000 people) through the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access Facility (COVAX) facility was accepted in February and an initial batch of the AstraZeneca vaccine was pledged during the reporting period. Phase one of vaccination roll-out for northwest Syria, in priority order of precedence, will include health care workers, high-risk population groups (with associated chronic co-morbidities) and other cluster front-line workers (depending on availability).

SYP devaluation: The value of the Syrian Pound (SYP) against the US Dollar has continued to weaken significantly in the last few months. Following the issuance of a new 5,000 SYP banknote in February, the exchange rates reached new historical lows in northwest Syria reaching 4,760 SYP/USD on 17 March. As of 24 March, the SYP was over 250 percent weaker than at the same date last year and has devalued some 27 percent against the USD in the last month. The most recent wave of devaluation is a continuation of the economic turbulence that has been affecting the Syrian people across the country, particularly since late 2019. The devaluation of the SYP and economic turbulence over the past year has significantly eroded people’s ability to meet their basic needs, no longer being able to afford bread, fuel and other vital commodities. This also results in people engaging in harmful practices to survive, including child labour and other forms of exploitation.

Wind incidents, flooding and winterisation: In March, heavy winds across northwest Syria resulted in damage to 88 IDP sites. According to the CCCM Cluster, from 11 to 24 March, some 1,521 tents were damaged as a result of the heavy winds, with families forced to temporarily move in with relatives and neighbours in the IDP sites. The heavy winds increased the need for tent replacements, food, and plastic sheets, compounding with existing needs caused by the flooding incidents and winterisation needs in recent months. Since the last situation report on 24 February, the CCCM also reported on flood incidents impacting 15 IDP sites that led to the destruction of 607 shelters and partial damage to 1,475 shelters.

Due to the lack of better heating and shelter materials, many people in northwest Syria also rely on burning unsafe materials for heat, which can cause fires or be unsafe for breathing. From 24 February until 23 March 2021, the CCCM reported fire incidents affecting 18 IDP sites, leading to one death and one injury as well as the destruction of 23 shelters, mainly due to malfunctioning or misused heating or cooking stoves.

Population movements: More than 2.7 million people remain displaced in northwest Syria. According to the CCCM Cluster, more than 18,623 displacements were tracked in February, with departures principally occurring from Dana, Idleb and Afrin. The main locations where displaced people had arrived to include Dana, A’zaz and Maaret Tamsrin sub-districts. Some people may have been exposed to multiple displacements. According to the CCCM Cluster, more than 2,478 IDP returnees returned to their homes or to previous places of displacement during the same period, mainly arriving to the Ariha, Ehsem and Mhambal sub-districts.

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