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Army reveals why it’s court-martialing soldier who was attacked 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)
September 20, 2021

Last week, the U.S. Army revealed part of the reason why it is prosecuting a soldier whose unit was fire upon in an August 17, 2020 attack in Syria – because he allegedly instigated the fight and ordered footage of the ensuing gun battle deleted.

According to newly-released charging documents, the Army is charging Sgt. 1st Class Robert Nicoson — of B Troop, 1st Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division — with violating orders to stay away from forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Nicoson also stands accused of asking his teammates to delete footage and lie about the encounter in which U.S. forces killed one Syrian soldier and wounded at least two more.

The exact cause of the August 2020 firefight remains a key matter of debate in Nicoson’s case. In one version of events, Nicoson’s unit was out on anti-ISIS patrol in Syria near Tall Dahat, Syria when it approached an Assad-regime check. In that version of events, the pro-Assad forces allowed the convoy safe passage, only to then begin firing upon them, forcing Nicoson and his unit to return fire in self-defense.

That version of events was put forward by one of the U.S. military’s initial tweets in response to the firefight. Col. Wayne Marotto, the spokesman of Operation Inherent Resolve, tweeted, “On 8/17, @CJTFOIR & @cmoc_sdf, conducting a routine anti-ISIS security patrol near Tal Al-Zahab, encountered a checkpoint occupied by pro-Syrian regime forces…the patrol [was attacked]. Coalition troops returned fire in self-defense. No Coalition casualties.”

In the version of events suggested by the new charging documents, Nicoson’s unit approached the pro-Assad checkpoint, despite standing orders to keep their distance. The charges allege Nicoson dismounted from his vehicle, which was bringing up the rear of his unit’s convoy, and approached the pro-Assad checkpoint. Nicoson is then accused of threatening to kill the pro-Assad forces if they did not allow his unit to pass through. After allegedly communicating that threat, Nicoson and his unit did continue through the checkpoint despite knowing they “did not have permission to do so,” further instigating the ensuing firefight.

The charge sheet accuses Nicoson of “likely to cause death or grievous bodily harm to U.S. forces and pro-regime forces at the checkpoint.” 

The charge sheet further accuses Nicoson of ordering two soldiers to delete videos they had recorded from the interaction at the checkpoint. Nicoson is also accused of telling a soldier to lie and say that they’d been granted passage through the checkpoint. 

Nicoson’s attorney, Phil Stackhouse, expressed disappointment at the charges against his client.

In a statement to Military Times, Stackhouse said, “It’s disappointing that the Commander, 82nd Airborne, disregarded the recommendations of the impartial preliminary hearing officer his subordinate appointed — who recommended some charges be dismissed.”

According to Military Times, a July 1 preliminary hearing report recommended at least two of the charges against Nicoson be dropped, including the charges of failure to obey an order and reckless endangerment.

“Although there is probable cause to support both of the specifications, the facts, as presented, leave room for doubt,” the July report states. “The evidence is contradictory and seems colored by multiple conversations, rumors, and/or training conducted in the aftermath of the incidents.”

A preliminary hearing officer also noted in the July report that an investigation of the firefight didn’t begin until a couple of months after the August 2020 incident.

“The witnesses seem to have inherent bias and prejudice as a result of what they were told after the fact,” the report also adds.

Stackhouse said he hopes the charges against his client will be dismissed as the evidence develops. “Until then, SFC Nicoson is preparing for trial.”