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Army finally reveals why a soldier is being court-martialed for a mysterious firefight in Syria

Nicoson allegedly ordered soldiers to delete video of the incident.
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SFC Rob Nicoson
Sgt. 1st Class Rob Nicoson. (Courtesy photo.)

An Army platoon sergeant is facing a court-martial next year for alleged misconduct before and after a brief 2020 gun battle in Syria between pro-regime and coalition forces.

It was reported last month that the Army intended to bring charges against Sgt. 1st Class Robert Nicoson, assigned to B Troop, 1st Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, though the Army didn’t originally provide details about his case. He is charged with violating orders, reckless endangerment, making unlawful threats, and obstruction of justice. The charges were referred for general court-martial by Maj. Gen. Christopher Donahue, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division.

“Charges are merely accusations and the accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty,” Lt. Col. Brett Lea, a division spokesman, told Task & Purpose.

A US soldier walks near a Bradley Fighting Vehicle (BFV) during a patrol near the Rumaylan (Rmeilan) oil wells in Syria’s northeastern Hasakeh province on June 22, 2021. (Photo by Delil SOULEIMAN / AFP) (Photo by DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images)

There’s a lot we don’t know about what happened during the Aug. 17, 2020 encounter. But details have emerged from the military’s initial statements on the firefight and in court documents.

One version of events, as reported by Operation Inherent Resolve officials, says troops were “conducting a routine anti-ISIS security patrol,” and after “receiving safe passage … the patrol came under small arms fire from individuals in the vicinity of the checkpoint.” 

A portion of the fight was caught on video and circulated on social media. Some reports from Syrian media said U.S. helicopters bombed the checkpoint and killed a Syrian fighter. The OIR press release, however, said the coalition did not carry out an airstrike and there were no casualties.

Another version of events that day can be pieced together by the charges against Nicoson. According to a copy of the soldier’s charge sheet that was provided to Task & Purpose, coalition forces reportedly approached a checkpoint controlled by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Nicoson was in the last vehicle of the patrol, according to his attorney Philip Stackhouse.

The U.S. troops had previously been ordered to stay roughly 1.2 miles from the pro-regime forces, according to the charge sheet. Despite the order, the charges say, Nicoson approached the compound, got out of his vehicle and threatened to kill the pro-regime troops if they didn’t allow the Americans through.

The American patrol proceeded through the checkpoint, the charge sheet says, despite knowing the soldiers “did not have permission to do so,” which was conduct “likely to cause death or grievous bodily harm to U.S. forces and pro-regime forces at the checkpoint.” 

It’s unclear what happened next that led to the gunfight, though Nicoson “had reason to believe that there would be disciplinary proceedings pending,” according to the charge sheet. 

U.S. Forces Conduct Operations In Northern Syria
NORTHEASTERN SYRIA – MAY 25: U.S. Army soldiers prepare to go out on patrol from a remote combat outpost on May 25, 2021 in northeastern Syria. U.S. forces, part of Task Force WARCLUB operate from combat outposts in the area, coordinating with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in combatting residual ISIS extremists and deterring pro-Iranian militia. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

After the shootout, he allegedly ordered two soldiers to delete video recordings of the interaction at the checkpoint, the charge sheet says. He also allegedly ordered a soldier “to falsely claim” that they’d been given permission to go through the checkpoint by the pro-regime forces.

American troops returned to their base after the incident, according to the press release from OIR.

Stackhouse told Task & Purpose that his client was arraigned and intends to plead not guilty. Nicoson was charged in April 2021, eight months after the incident. His trial is expected to begin in early January 2022, Stackhouse said. 

The preliminary hearing officer on July 1, 2021, recommended the dismissal of two of the four charges against Nicoson — that he failed to obey an order and endangered others by dismounting his vehicle and approaching the pro-regime checkpoint before then passing through, according to a redacted report obtained by Task & Purpose outlining the preliminary hearing officer’s recommendations. Donahue rejected the officer’s recommendation.

Stackhouse said it was “disappointing” that Donahue ignored the recommendations made after a preliminary hearing of Nicoson’s case.

The hearing officer did, however, recommend the two other charges to court-martial. Those charges allege that Nicolson threatened to kill the pro-regime forces if they didn’t allow the coalition forces through the checkpoint near Tall Dahat, Syria and that he ordered soldiers to delete video of his actions at the checkpoint, and directed a soldier to lie and say that they’d been granted passage through the checkpoint. 

U.S. Forces Conduct Operations In Northern Syria
NORTHEASTERN SYRIA – MAY 24: A U.S. Army helicopter crew member looks out from the open ramp of a CH-47 Chinook helicopter while transporting troops on May 24, 2021 over northeastern Syria. U.S. forces, part of Task Force WARCLUB operate from remote combat outposts in the area, coordinating with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in combatting residual ISIS extremists and deterring pro-Iranian militia. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

According to the redacted report, the investigation of the allegations makes it “very clear that these engagements were discussed at length between leadership and the troops and amongst the troops.” 

“Because the [Criminal Investigation Command] investigation did not start until a couple months after the August incident, it appears the memories of the witnesses were already tainted by the time and outside influences,” the report says. “The witnesses seem to have inherent bias and prejudice as a result of what they were told after the fact.” 

Despite having several hundred troops currently in Syria, there’s often been little attention on what the U.S. is doing there. Americans were originally sent to Syria in 2015 to battle the Islamic State group and later worked alongside the Syrian Democratic Forces, made up of Kurdish and Arab militia forces. 

The U.S. has recently taken a back seat of sorts to the SDF, however. A defense official told Politico in July that no American troops had accompanied local forces on combat patrols for more than a year. “They are not kicking in doors, apprehending the enemy, etc.,” the official said.

Despite being there for several years it sometimes seems that lawmakers have forgotten the troops’ presence in Syria, and it’s unclear how much longer the U.S. presence will last. Jennifer Cafarella, a national security fellow at the Institute for Understanding War research institution, told Task & Purpose that the U.S. is “merely buying time” in Syria. 

“The U.S. deployment in eastern Syria,” she said, “is sustainable only so long as no actor significantly increases pressure on them.”

The charge sheet can be viewed below:

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