Gunfight at Syrian checkpoint leads to charges against sergeant first class

A rare gunfight between U.S. paratroopers and pro-Syrian regime forces last summer has led to charges against a senior enlisted soldier assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

The clash occurred near Tal al-Zahab, in Syria’s northeast, where a tenuous U.S. military presence has guarded lucrative oil fields and chased lingering Islamic State fighters. Altercations with local militias and Russian forces last year highlighted the unpredictable nature of the mission there, and at least one incident followed soldiers home.

Sgt. 1st Class Robert Nicoson, of Blackhorse Troop, 1st Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, was charged in early April with two counts of failure to obey a lawful order, two counts of reckless endangerment, one count of communicating threats and three counts of obstructing justice.

The charges stem from a roughly 10-minute gunfight that erupted at a pro-Syrian regime checkpoint Aug. 17, 2020. The exchange reportedly killed one Syrian fighter and wounded two others. There were no U.S. casualties. A portion of the gunfight was caught on video, though it does not show how it began.

After “receiving safe passage from pro-regime forces,” the Americans “came under small arms fire from individuals in the vicinity of the checkpoint” and returned fire in self-defense, Operation Inherent Resolve officials said in a statement at the time.

Eight months later, OIR spokesman Col. Wayne Marotto declined to comment on an investigation into the incident. The U.S.-led coalition “cannot comment on any allegations that are under investigation or the subject of current or pending court-martial charges,” he told Army Times.

The charges against Nicoson allege that he put soldiers into a situation they shouldn’t have been in and made threats against the pro-Syrian regime forces at the checkpoint before the gunfight started, according to Nicoson’s civilian defense attorney, Phillip Stackhouse.

“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 said.

There was also a platoon commander leading the patrol, Stackhouse added, but that soldier only received a General Officer Memorandum of Reprimand following the incident.

“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 said. “The platoon commander is not charged, so why are they charging Nicoson?”

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لتقوم بعدها مروحيتان للاحتلال الأميركي بقصف عناصر الحاجز ما أدى لاستشهاد عنصر وإصابة إثنين pic.twitter.com/kjhgPSSZyG
— خالد اسكيف (@khalediskef) August 17, 2020

A spokesman for the 82nd Airborne Division, Lt. Col. Mike Burns, confirmed that only Nicoson is facing charges but declined to comment on the platoon leader’s situation. Burns also declined to provide charge sheets and added that the allegations are not limited to one incident.

But the checkpoint gunfight is at the “crux of the allegations,” said Stackhouse.

The clash occurred in an area where a cluster of tribal villages remain loyal to Russian-backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, according to Nicholas Heras, a senior analyst at Washington’s Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy.

“That pocket of regime control has existed since the start of the Syrian civil war, and the U.S. forces would have been well aware of it,” Heras said. “It is quite possible that this was a floating checkpoint that the local regime-aligned militia decided to set up to harass the Americans at a time of tension between U.S. and Russian forces.”

When the patrol encountered the checkpoint, the platoon leader was speaking with higher headquarters while Nicoson interacted with pro-regime forces through an interpreter, according to Stackhouse. OIR officials said after the incident that the U.S. patrol was cleared to pass through before they were fired upon.

As the gunfight unfolded, Nicoson and another soldier left their trucks to draw fire away from a gunner who needed to reload a crew-served weapon, according to a narrative by the non-profit group United American Patriots.

That non-profit is supporting Nicoson and has become well-known for advocating on behalf of U.S. troops accused or convicted of war crimes, including Clint Lorance and Eddie Gallagher.

Nicoson isn’t facing allegations that he acted inappropriately once combat started, according to Stackhouse.

“But what they are alleging is that [Nicoson] sort of prospectively threatened the forces at the checkpoint — that if they shot or attacked [the Americans] … harm would come to them,” Stackhouse added. “Being there to begin with, they’re saying, is reckless endangerment.”

At the time of the incident, OIR officials dismissed allegations circulating on social media that an airstrike was ordered on the checkpoint. However, an Apache attack helicopter did perform a show-of-force prior to the gunfight.

The obstruction charges come from allegations that Nicoson instructed soldiers to delete GoPro footage of the incident, which Nicoson’s defense team disputes.

Before an Army CID investigation into the incident was completed, Nicoson was being written up for a Bronze Star with valor, according to Stackhouse. The CID investigation was “light” on details, he said, though Army Times has not seen a copy of the document.

“I don’t think it’s any stretch at all to say that CID and several of these military investigative agencies conduct their investigations with a significant amount of confirmation bias,” said Stackhouse. “We always have to do our own investigation.”

The gunfight occurred in a tense region, where U.S. and Russian forces have had several altercations.

The same month that Nicoson’s patrol got into their gunfight at the checkpoint, a “Russian military vehicle purposefully collided” with vehicles driven by U.S. paratroopers, reads an 82nd Airborne Divsion news release discussing the end of the deployment in February.

American and Russian officials traded blame in late August 2020 over that incident, which was likened to a Mad Max race across the Syrian desert and caught on video.

The area where Nicoson’s patrol was attacked is one of the few pockets of regime support in Syria’s northeastern Hasakah province.

“The U.S. has walked on eggshells to keep U.S. forces out of contact with regime forces, to stay on the counter-ISIS mission,” said Heras, the Syria analyst. “The only exception to that is for self defense.

“It is exceedingly rare for U.S. forces and regime-aligned forces to clash,” he noted. “For the most part, they avoid each other. This incident was highly unusual.”

Nicoson’s case is now awaiting an Article 32 hearing to determine whether it will go to court-martial. His defense team is gathering evidence and has asked that the hearing be held in late May.

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