Don't forget how crucial the economy is to war – and peace – in Syria

This blog was originally published in The Guardian on 15 March 2016

Economy and peace are intimately linked. But the economy can also play a role in conflict, and competition over resources is at the heart of most of the conflicts we see today.

Syria is no exception. The erosion of livelihoods by prolonged drought, and a history of excluding certain groups, helped trigger the conflict, which enters its sixth year this week.

With more than 4.5 million Syrians living as refugees in neighbouring countries and unemployment in Syria at up to 90%, the need to generate livelihood opportunities for both refugees and people inside Syria is critical, as highlighted at last month’s donor conference in London.

Those promoting economic development in fragile and conflict-affected places – including businesses, governments, and local and international organisations – can and must ensure their projects make a contribution both to livelihoods and peace.

While official peace talks are ongoing, it is not too early to begin planning post-war reconstruction of the economy, which should aim to improve access to livelihoods and gradually build bridges between those who have been divided.

This will not end the civil war: to do this, an urgent political solution is required. But economic reconstruction could help de-escalate the conflict at a local level, and reduce the risk that peace would be undermined.

A strong economy could:

1) Reduce the risk that people will be recruited by armed groups by providing alternative income sources and giving young people, especially, a sense of purpose, dignity and hope;

A young man with a reliable income – especially if he has several mouths to feed – is less vulnerable to the blandishments of armed groups seeking recruits. The sense of purpose he gets from being economically engaged in society also means there is less chance he will be swayed by ideological arguments.

2) build bridges between divided communities by bringing people together around a common purpose and need, and gradually create a web of connections through trade. Communities connected by trade are less likely to go to war than those who are not;

3) Sow the seeds for a “peace-supporting” economy. This means ensuring that businesses and entrepreneurs understand the causes of conflict and are conscious of how their actions can exacerbate or help resolve tensions. For example, they could ensure they do not restrict employment or supply chain opportunities to one preferred social group. By spreading the peace dividend across social divisions, they can do much to promote peace.

Clearly, the pre-conflict economy had within it the seeds of the war now being fought and these included the structural exclusion of some groups and the preferential access to opportunity granted to others, both nationally and on a local scale. Recovery must be based on the need to spread opportunities and benefits more fairly, and reduce the tensions which exclusion and unfairness can cause, while at the same time taking care not to create a situation in which former elites become the new excluded, storing up the potential for future unrest.

4) Galvanise regional private sector leaders into shaping and delivering a peace-supporting economy now and in the long term. Many business people are also civil society leaders, highly respected and often powerful and well-connected. Their voices are critical in lowering tensions and bringing people together in dialogue, especially during the dangerous period after any peace agreement is made, when mistrust and the desire for revenge will remain at high levels.

Leadership will be key – and business people in Syria and the region will have an important role to play.