U.S. forces were supposed to remain two kilometers away from pro-Syrian regime fighters, but last summer, a group of 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers approached a regime checkpoint and triggered a gunfight, according to charge sheets provided to Army Times this week.
On Aug. 17, 2020, Sgt. 1st Class Robert Nicoson’s patrol drove up to a checkpoint in northeastern Syria manned by troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Nicoson dismounted his vehicle and threatened to kill the pro-regime fighters if they did not allow B Troop, 1st Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, through, the charge sheets said.
The exchange that followed 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 the incident, Nicoson ordered two soldiers to delete video recordings of the unit’s actions at the checkpoint in an attempt to cover up any potential wrongdoing, the charge sheets said.
He also ordered a soldier to falsely claim that pro-Syrian regime fighters granted the unit permission to pass through the checkpoint, the charge sheets added.
The paratroopers eventually returned to their home of Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Roughly eight months after the incident, Nicoson was charged with two counts of failure to obey an order; two counts of reckless endangerment; one count of communicating threats; and three counts of obstructing justice.
The charges were approved by 82nd Airborne commander Maj. Gen. Christopher Donahue and Nicoson was arraigned Aug. 24. A trial is slated to start Jan. 4.
Nicoson, through his lawyer, disputed the allegations and stated his intent to plead not guilty.
“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,” defense attorney Phil Stackhouse said in a statement.
A copy of the July 1 preliminary hearing report obtained by Army Times details how the hearing officer recommended two charges against Nicoson be dismissed — failure to obey an order and reckless endangerment. The hearing officer still recommended that the obstructing justice and communicating threats charges be referred to court-martial.
“Although there is probable cause to support both of the specifications, the facts, as presented, leave room for doubt,” the hearing report reads. “The evidence is contradictory and seems colored by multiple conversations, rumors, and/or training conducted in the aftermath of the incidents.”
The 82nd Airborne’s top spokesman declined to comment further.
“Due to the ongoing nature of this case, it would be inappropriate to discuss specific details or individuals related to this pending trial,” Lt. Col. Brett Lea said in an email. “As in all cases brought to court-martial, charges are merely accusations and the accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty.”
The CID investigation did not start until a couple months after the August 2020 incident, the preliminary hearing officer wrote in his report.
“The witnesses seem to have inherent bias and prejudice as a result of what they were told after the fact,” the hearing report reads.
Stackhouse said he still hopes the 82nd Airborne will dismiss the charges as evidence develops.
“Till then, SFC Nicoson is preparing for trial,” Stackhouse added.
The gunfight was reported publicly when it occurred in August 2020, but U.S. officials did not hint that anything was amiss.
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.
When the patrol encountered the checkpoint, the platoon leader was speaking with higher headquarters while Nicoson interacted with pro-regime forces through an interpreter, Stackhouse told Army Times previously. The platoon leader received a General Officer Memorandum of Reprimand following the incident, he added.
Lea, the 82nd Airborne spokesman, declined to discuss whether any officer was part of Nicoson’s patrol and whether that individual had been punished.
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter who has covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq.