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Soldier charged after ambushed in Syria now acquitted in court-martial

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)
January 10, 2022

Sgt. 1st Class Robert Nicoson, the 82nd Airborne Division soldier who faced seven court-martial charges after his unit was ambushed during a patrol in Syria in 2020, was acquitted on all charges on Friday after just two hours of jury deliberation.

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.

Following the firefight, Nicoson was charged with violating orders, reckless endangerment, making unlawful threats to the pro-Assad forces, and obstruction of justice.

Phillip Stackhouse, Nicoson’s attorney, announced the acquittal in a series of tweets on Saturday.

“Last night, January 7, 2022, an Army court-martial panel (jury) comprised of 2 Lieutenant Colonels and 6 Command Sergeants Major found Sergeant First Class Robert Nicoson, U.S.Army, not guilty of all seven allegations,” Stackhouse tweeted. “(A motion for a finding of not guilty was granted to an eighth allegation at the end of the evidence phase). The trial lasted for a week and over 20 witnesses were called to the stand to provide testimony to a combat-experienced panel.”

Stackhouse added, “After just over 2-hours of deliberations, the panel President delivered the verdict in open court. Sergeant First Class Nicoson, and his family, continue to be humbled and thankful to those that have supported him and stood by his side.”

Following the 2020 firefight, U.S. military officials with Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) characterized the incident as an ambush in which the pro-Assad forces initially allowed Nicoson’s convoy safe passage, only to then begin firing upon them, forcing Nicoson and his unit to return fire in self-defense.

In the subsequent charges against Nicoson, prosecutors alleged his unit approached the pro-Assad checkpoint despite standing orders to keep their distance. Prosecutors further alleged Nicoson dismounted from his vehicle and threatened 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 continued through the checkpoint despite knowing they “did not have permission to do so,” further instigating the ensuing firefight. The charges against Nicoson said his actions at the time were “likely to cause death or grievous bodily harm to U.S. forces and pro-regime forces at the checkpoint.” 

Stackhouse told Military Times “what [Nicoson] said was in self-defense of himself and his soldiers in an attempt to deter an attack.”

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.”

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

Stackhouse told Military Times, “Regarding the videos, there were issues argued about if it was said, what was actually said, and why something may have been said. Regardless, our position was that nothing occurred that was obstruction of justice.”