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Army soldier facing court-martial after being ambushed by Assad’s Syrian forces

U.S. Soldiers from 1st Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, in the Central Command (CENTCOM) area of responsibility, Oct. 25, 2020. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Jensen Guillory)
August 04, 2021

A U.S. Army soldier is facing a general-court martial after he and his unit were fired upon by Syrian government forces during a 2020 deployment in Syria, a new report revealed this week.

On Aug. 17, 2020, Army Sgt. 1st Class Rob Nicoson and his teammates of the 82nd Airborne Division’s Blackhorse Troop, 1st Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment were traveling in Tal Az-Zahab, Syria. As they came upon a checkpoint manned by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, they were momentarily allowed to pass before the pro-Assad forces opened fire on them. What ensued was an approximately 10-minute firefight in which one Syrian soldier was killed and two others were wounded, while Nicoson and his teammates escaped without casualties.

Now, Nicoson faces charges of violating orders, reckless endangerment, making unlawful threats, and obstruction of justice, division spokesman Lt. Col. Brett Lea told Task & Purpose.

Military officials have not publicly stated specifically what Nicoson did that led them to bring charges against him.

Part of the firefight was caught on camera and a Syrian reporter tweeted at the time, “A video showing the clash between elements of the Syrian Army and the American occupation forces during the passage of the American patrol and intercepted them from the elements of the army checkpoint in the gold hill. Then two US occupation helicopters bombed the checkpoint, which led to the death of one member and the injury of two.”

Following the Aug. 17, 2020 firefight, Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) said, “Coalition and Syrian Democratic Forces, a routine anti-ISIS security patrol near Tal Al-Zahab, Syria, encountered a pro-Syrian regime checkpoint. After receiving safe passage from the pro-regime forces, the patrol came under small arms fire from individuals at the checkpoint. Coalition troops returned fire in self-defense.”

Both the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Syrian state-run media, claimed U.S. forces called in helicopter gunships during the firefight, though OIR officials disputed that reporting.

In April, Nicoson’s civilian attorney Phillip Stackhouse told Army Times, the charges against his client alleged that he put his teammates into a situation they shouldn’t have been in and made threats against the pro-Assad forces at the checkpoint before they attacked.

“Soldiers were told to stay two kilometers away from particular Syrian forces, but the missions that [Nicoson] was a part of, presumably took them within two kilometers of those same Syrian forces,” Stackhouse told Army Times.

Stackhouse further claimed that while his client faces a court-martial, a more senior platoon leader who was leading the unit during the attack has received no more than a General Officer Memorandum of Reprimand.

The Army’s own documents state, “A Letter of Reprimand (LOR) is an administrative reproach or ‘chewing out’ given to a Soldier by a Commander.”

“His platoon commander was there. In fact his platoon commander was in one of the more lead vehicles and [Nicoson’s] vehicle was the trail vehicle,” Stackhouse told Army Times. “The platoon commander is not charged, so why are they charging Nicoson?”

Stackhouse further told Task & Purpose, “It’s unfortunate, and frankly an injustice, that the charges were referred to a general court-martial in Rob’s case. The preliminary hearing officer pointed out the weakness in the investigation, the tainted witness statements, pointed out the problems facing the prosecution, and recommended some charges be dismissed – without the prosecutors calling one witness.” 

“It’s not going to get any better for the prosecution,” Stackhouse added. “All of that was apparently ignored by the commanding general. Instead, the commanding general followed the staff judge advocate advice that was completely devoid of any analysis. Now we begin down the long road to real justice and the crucible of trial.”

About 900 U.S. troops are currently deployed in Syria as part of Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S.-coalition mission to defeat the Islamic State terrorist group, ISIS. The U.S. mission in Syria has been complicated by the ongoing civil war between Russian and Iranian-backed Assad forces and the Syrian opposition forces.