The Syrian government has agreed to let aid workers into the country, the UN says, even as the country expels foreign diplomats.
It would be the first time humanitarian workers - aside from the International Committee of the Red Cross - have been granted permission to enter Syria.
The workers will initially be based in just four cities hard hit by the fighting: Homs, Deraa, Idlib, and Deir Ezzour.
UN teams have been sent to scout those areas, said John Ging, director of the co-ordination and response unit at the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
"Whether this is a breakthrough or not will be evident in the coming days and weeks, and it will be measured not in rhetorics, not in agreements, but in action on the ground," he said.
But despite the humanitarian opening, Syria has also decided to declare 17 foreign diplomats unwelcome in the country.
The ambassadors of the US, UK, France and Turkey, among others, were declared personae non gratae.
Canada, Italy, Spain and various embassy staff members from Belgium, Bulgaria and Germany were also named in a foreign ministry statement.
A slew of mainly Western countries expelled Syrian diplomats in the wake of the Houla massacre of more than 100 people in late May, one of the worst atrocities in the country since an uprising broke out in March 2011.
Ceasefire constantly violated
Syria remains committed to the peace plan brokered by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, Faisal al-Maqdad, Syria's deputy foreign minister, said on Monday, following a meeting with the chief UN observer.
"We shall work for the success of Annan plan," Maqdad said, adding that he discussed with Major-General Robert Mood "the joint work that we need to carry out together after the full deployment" of the UN-backed truce observer mission in Syria.
Almost 300 UN unarmed military observers have been deployed in Syria to monitor a putative ceasefire in place since April 12, but which has been violated every day since then.
A Chinese official has said that Beijing and Moscow have been playing a "positive role" on Syria and reiterated the countries' opposition to foreign intervention in the conflict, as Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived for a three-day visit.
Putin's visit to China is aimed at bolstering crucial ties between the powerful neighbours who have aligned at the UN to block tougher international action against Syria despite widespread condemnation of the government's deadly crackdown.
Liu Weimin, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, told a daily news briefing that both countries agreed there should be an immediate end to violence and that political dialogue should begin as soon as possible.
"Both sides oppose external intervention in Syria and oppose regime change by force," Liu said.
"We believe ultimately the Syrian issue should be properly addressed through consultation among different parties in Syria. This is in the fundamental interests of the Syrian people. China and Russia have been playing, in their own way, a positive role on the Syrian issue."
Both energy and foreign policy co-operation are expected to be high on the agenda for Putin's visit, with the Russian leader also due to meet the presidents of Iran and Afghanistan as part of a regional security summit on Wednesday and Thursday.
Putin's China trip, his first since returning to the Kremlin earlier this month, comes after failed attempts by EU leaders to sway him on Syria - a Soviet-era ally Moscow has continued to supply with arms.
Beijing and Moscow have used their veto powers at the UN Security Council to obstruct condemnation of Damascus, saying they will not back measures that could lead to foreign intervention.
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|William A. Cook|
|Timothy V. Gatto|
|Allen L. Jasson|