There wasn’t a cloud in the sky outside of Tal al-Zahab, Syria, on the morning of Aug. 17, 2020. That day, Army Sgt. 1st Class Robert Nicoson, his platoon commander, and 16 soldiers of his patrol from the 82nd Airborne Division drove down a thin ribbon of blacktop toward a pro-Syrian regime checkpoint outside of town.
It was a routine anti-ISIS security patrol in the sweltering August heat of the Syrian desert, until it wasn’t.
Minutes after being cleared to pass through the checkpoint, Nicoson and his soldiers were attacked by the same fighters granting them passage. Within weeks of the firefight, Nicoson’s bravery under fire led to a recommendation for a Bronze Star with a “V” for valor. Months later, Nicoson now finds himself facing charges that effectively pin the blame for the firefight on him, even though Nicoson’s platoon commander was present on the patrol, and the Department of Defense stated the soldiers had acted in self-defense.
“I can’t see why the sergeant is being handled more roughly than the platoon leader […] none of this happens if the platoon leader doesn’t put them there,” retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. Robert Bracknell, a former military lawyer, told Coffee or Die Magazine in an interview. Bracknell has advanced training in international and operational law, along with a master’s of laws from Harvard University.
فيديو يظهر الاشتباك بين عناصر من #الجيش_السوري وقوات الاحتلال الأميركي اثناء مرور الدورية الامريكية واعتراضهم من عناصر حاجز الجيش في #تل_الذهب بريف #القامشلي
لتقوم بعدها مروحيتان للاحتلال الأميركي بقصف عناصر الحاجز ما أدى لاستشهاد عنصر وإصابة إثنين pic.twitter.com/kjhgPSSZyG
— خالد اسكيف (@khalediskef) August 17, 2020
The Operation Inherent Resolve press release regarding the incident read, “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.”
According to the Army Times, the roughly 10-minute firefight left one Syrian fighter dead and two more wounded. Nicoson is credited with exiting his vehicle in order to deliberately draw the fire of attacking Syrians so that his men could reload. However, a yet-to-be-released Army Criminal Investigative Division report effectively blamed Nicoson for the incident.
Later this month, Nicoson faces a hearing on multiple charges stemming from the firefight in Syria, including two counts of failure to follow a lawful order, two counts of reckless endangerment, one count of wrongful communication, and three counts of obstruction of justice.
“The gravamen of the issue is the unit placed itself in a position it shouldn’t have been in, and apparently the sergeant made it worse by being mouthy and provocative,” Bracknell told Coffee or Die.
The chain of events leading to the firefight remain murky. Additionally, Army officials are holding Nicoson, rather than the platoon commander who was present at the time of the incident, accountable for the soldiers being too close to Syrian positions during the patrol.
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