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.
“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,” Nicoson’s civilian defense attorney, Phillip Stackhouse, told the Army Times. “Being there to begin with, they’re saying, is reckless endangerment.”
Stackhouse told the Army Times that soldiers in Nicoson’s unit were told to stay a minimum of 2 kilometers (1.24 miles) away from a particular Syrian force position. However, missions in which Nicoson was involved brought them within that 2-kilometer boundary. Stackhouse suggests that this was not the first time that Nicoson and his soldiers were in close proximity to pro-Syrian regime forces.
But combat operations throughout the Middle East are often murky, with combatant forces that ebb and flow across a battlespace rife with competing factions and a mix of regular and irregular forces. Along that line of thinking, a fixed 2-kilometer boundary may not have been a realistic expectation, Bracknell said.
“The Syrian forces may have been mobile, as well, and likely got a vote in how close they got to American forces,” Bracknell said. “What I don’t really understand is if Nicoson was within 2 kilometers, wasn’t the platoon leader within 2 kilometers as well? Who is responsible for that proximity?”
Stackhouse told the Army Times that the platoon commander was in one of the “lead” vehicles of the convoy, while Nicoson was in the last vehicle of the movement. As the encounter devolved into violence, the platoon commander was on the radio with higher headquarters and Nicoson was communicating to the pro-regime forces through an interpreter, where he issued his alleged threat of violence should his soldiers come under attack.
These types of threats are not uncommon in warfare, and ultimately it is the duty of officers and senior noncommissioned officers to ensure the safety of those in their command.
Marine Gen. James Mattis famously told tribal leaders in Iraq’s Anbar province: “I come in peace. I didn’t bring artillery. But I’m pleading with you, with tears in my eyes — if you fuck with me, I’ll kill you all.”
Mattis’ statement is celebrated for its bravado. However, it was ultimately intended to prevent unnecessary violence.
“The hair trigger for a platoon at a checkpoint with irregular forces is a lot more touchy than Mattis’ bravado,” Bracknell said. “It’s not apples and oranges, but it’s Red Delicious and Granny Smith.”
Twitter video of the firefight shows Nicoson’s unit engaged and clearly with the upper hand. A cacophony of American small-arms and machine-gun fire rains down on pro-Syrian regime positions; it’s unclear whether the Americans are engaging uniformed Syrians.
“If the irregulars were in plain clothes, the government’s evidence would have to show facts that put the accused on notice they were irregular fighters — armament, location, types of vehicles driven, et cetera. If the evidence showed the irregulars really blended into the population, this might be hard for the government to prove,” Bracknell said.
Another aspect of the case is the appearance of an Apache helicopter. Video posted to Twitter of the engagement shows an Apache orbiting above the checkpoint. The Army Times reports that the attack helicopter conducted a show of force prior to the gunfight, a move that is typically requested by an officer, and an indication that troops on the ground are under fire.
“Almost certainly the Apache was responding to the platoon leader’s request for support, though it could have been vectored there by a [Combat Operations Center] based on their independent assessment, imagery, blue force tracker type info,” Bracknell told Coffee or Die. “But probably [it was] requested by the platoon leader. It’s just hard to say why.”
Following Nicoson’s hearing on charges at the end of May, more details should emerge surrounding the incident. Clearly, Nicoson acted with courage during the firefight. His individual actions, which the Army initially lauded, almost certainly ensured that none of his soldiers were killed or wounded.
“I’m not sure how you hold the platoon sergeant accountable,” Bracknell said.